LaBute is the genial Mormon, 38, who raises critics' spirits and audiences' hackles with dramatic essays in cruelty. His 1997 movie In the Company of Men had a suavely evil fellow concoct a scheme to seduce and then abandon an innocent deaf woman. "Let's do it," he says to a pal. "Let's hurt somebody." In Your Friends and Neighbors, six yuppies snipe at each other in bed and on every other battlefield. In Bash: Latterday Plays, which appeared off-Broadway and, last year, at the Almeida, nice people confess the most dreadful crimes, in tones so numb they might be reciting a grocery list. (He also directed, but didn't write, the Renée Zellweger comedy Nurse Betty.)
LaBute is a hard worker: he prepared and directed The Shape of Things while editing his film Possession, based on the A.S. Byatt novel. "I needed a night job," he said at the opening. The new play is a night story, a cautionary tale to tell the naive young before they drift to sleep dreaming of the perfect mate. It flicks references to other fables of sexual predation (Fatal Attraction, Play Misty for Me), while stirring a mood of increasing emotional dread. And at its heart is the notion that an artistanyway, a novelist or playwright—is essentially a vampire, draining friends of their essence, refashioning and distorting them into fiction, creating artistic harmony through human betrayal.
Evelyn (Rachel Weisz, co-star of The Mummy and its sequel) is a graduate student in art at a small college in the American Midwest. She meets Adam (Paul Rudd, an appealing young stage and screen veteran who played in Bash), a younger student working as a guard at the local museum, where Evelyn is thinking about spray-painting a penis onto the fig leaf adorning an otherwise nude statue. This first scene poses the question: Does this pretty provocateuse dare cross the line that separates propriety from artistic daring?
The answer is soon evident: she's always in the mood for a manifesto. "There is only art," she proclaims later. "Art that must be created. Whatever the cost." Evelyn is vague about her thesis project; she calls it "this sculpture thingie." Later we learn that her medium is "two very pliable materials: the human flesh and the human will." But from the start, she shows she has the will to dominate. And Adam is an ideal subject.
He's a pleasant chap, but so schlumpfy and insecure that, when Evelyn calls him "gallant," he snaps back, "Which is medieval for 'loser.'" He needs a makeover. So at her urging, or to please her, Adam remakes himself. He cuts his hair, pumps up, slims down, stops biting his nails, gets contact lenses, even a nose job. He has her initials (E.A.T.) tattooed on his groin. He sees himself in the mirror of her appraising eyes; he wants to be a thing worthy of her love, as she already is of his. And she can't help being impressed: "I gave you a couple of ideas, and you're changing your entire life. I'm very proud of you."
He is now a lure to a classmate, Jenny (Gretchen Mol, the Vanity Fair cover girl who was in two Woody Allen films), and a threat to Jenny's fiancé Phillip (Frederick Weller, who played Brian Wilson in a recent Beach Boys bio-pic). Where attraction looms, in a LaBute play, pain must follow. It's his theme: that people, people like us, hurt people. He has the craft to ensure they do so instructively and entertainingly. The play wouldn't work as seductively as it doesthe set-up, the darkening, the climactic switcheroowithout four beguiling actors who make their characters plausible at the sweetest and harshest of moments. (Rudd is especially adroit at suggesting Adam's metamorphosis from nerd to hunk.) Only at the end do we realize exactly who has been manipulated by a clever artist. We have.
At one point, Jenny says Phillip is "being funny," and Adam asks, "Funny how? Like 'telling jokes' funny or 'making letter bombs' funny?" This stinging fable is both. As with LaBute's earlier work, this is not a cruel play; it's a play about cruelty. Here the author again shows his delight in picking up rocks to see the ugliness of the creatures crawling underneath. But as a canny anatomizing of the things that presentable people do to each other in the name of love or art, the new LaBute is a real la-beauty.