False art. I hate it,” says Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), the succubus who serves as the antiheroine of Neil LaBute’s latest stage provocation, ”The Shape of Things.” The line comes in the first scene — as Evelyn, a twentysomething art student, sizes up both the statuary she’s about to deface and Adam, the fubsy museum guard (Paul Rudd) she’s going to seduce and make over — and it’s LaBute’s backhanded manifesto. Aren’t artists supposed to pursue truth, no matter where it takes them? Isn’t that what LaBute has done in all his work, to the dismay of many critics and audience members? Can’t Dr. Frankenstein pass a little genetic code to his own monster?

To some extent, all talk of art in Things is a dodge. Like ”In the Company of Men” (1997), the cinematic outrage that put LaBute on the map, and ”Bash” (1999), the writer-director’s last Off Broadway venture, the new drama is about power: who wields it and how. It’s clear from the outset that Evelyn is a master manipulator, as she woos Adam into dropping 20 pounds, and fixing his hair, and changing his wardrobe. And getting a nose job. And dumping his friends. And ultimately offering himself up as a moral blank canvas: ”Tell me what to do,” he says, ”and I’ll do it.”

What’s not apparent until the end is why, and while the penultimate scene that reveals the depths of Evelyn’s soullessness is intended to be a shocker, the revelation feels forced. Truth be told, Evelyn, a quintessential LaBute creation, isn’t interested in why. (Neither, as an artist, is LaBute.) Why does the predator eat its prey? Because it can. ”Don’t worry about ‘why’ when ‘what’ is right in front of you,” Evelyn insists to the self-doubting Adam. Faust was never offered a more concise bargain.

In ”The Shape of Things,” what’s right in front of you is ”The Mummy” star Weisz’s portrayal of Evelyn. The performance is a doozy, all right — glad-ragged in Goodwill chic, eyes crossed in suppressed rage, her voice a brazen honk of received notions — but Weisz’s Evelyn is also a shrew to make you wonder what Adam would ever see in her. ”She’s so evil,” hissed a woman behind me. Well, yes, and that’s too easy.

It’s telling that the play’s two finest scenes don’t involve her. One is a fumbling seduction between Adam and the woman he once loved from afar, his friend’s fiancee, Jenny (Gretchen Mol). Set in a playground, with the actors dandling in swings, attracted and repelled by lust and ethics, it’s a stunning little diamond of moralism. The other scene is more disturbing: Adam and said friend, the arrogant Phillip (Frederick Weller), circle each other over Jenny, with Adam thoroughly unnerved by Phillip’s chummy bonhomie, closet homoeroticism, and outright hostility. LaBute does create a hell of a monster, but it’s with recognizable humans that he displays his true art.

The Shape of Things
  • Movie
  • 97 minutes