Neil LaBute has become a Nietzsche for the Carolyn Hax set. His nasty films (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, Nurse Betty) have won him title as our cold-eyed philosopher, a connoisseur of romantic manipulation who divides humanity into weak and strong. But the hype obscures how LaBute manipulates us—with stacked-deck situations, predictably shocking revelations, and a habit of passing off criminal cravenness as a window into our species. For a guy who wants to paint complex morality tales, he uses an awfully big brush.

LaBute’s made a woman the prick this time, perhaps as a rejoinder to the charge that he’s a misogynist. But from its details to its blandly expansive title, worthy of Congreve, The Shape of Things fits the LaBute formula: cynical and stomach-turning, its interesting arguments overshadowed by their distasteful overstatement. And in the Studio Theatre’s production, a dynamic young cast acts the hell out of it anyway. Before a misstep at play’s end, lead Holly Twyford and colleagues make us see things in Shape that are barely there.

Twyford plays Evelyn, an MFA student who walks onto Debra Booth’s college-art-gallery set looking like a mother’s idea of trouble, with knee-high Doc Martens and red hair highlights that suggest a devil’s horns. A dweeby security guard, Adam (Scott Barrow), sees Evelyn get too close to a nude sculpture and asks her to step back. She refuses, challenging him. “What will you do?” she says. “What if I’m your first nonstepper?”

Evelyn intends to spray-paint a penis on the nude, whose genitalia the town’s conservative leadership has plastered over with a fig leaf. “I don’t like art that isn’t true,” she pronounces—a line of thought that wins over undergraduate Adam. Before he leaves her to her work, she aerosols her phone number on the inside of his coat.

The movie industry calls this “meeting cute.” And Evelyn and Adam proceed to kiss cute and screw cuter through a placid first act that also introduces Adam’s friends Philip (Justin C. Krauss) and Jenny (Margot White), an Archie-and-Veronica kind of couple who are planning their scuba-diving wedding. Philip and Evelyn do stir things up with a shouting match about the recent gallery defacement. (He calls it vandalism; she calls it a statement.) But the initial hour of The Shape of Things otherwise swells with the banality of young love—its familiar conversations, phases, and crises.

Except that there’s something disquieting about Adam and Evelyn’s paradise. At first, Evelyn’s suggestions that Adam cut his hair and eat better and exercise seem innocuous, even warranted. But by the time she’s gotten him to a plastic surgeon to have the bulb on the end of his nose removed, we fear for the poor boy.

“You’re dangerously close to owning me,” lovestruck Adam tells her at one point—this even though he can’t get his domineering lover to say exactly what she sees in him. LaBute also has Adam make nervous references to Henry Higgins, Gregor Samsa, Iago, and Play Misty for Me—allusions all the more ominous because Evelyn doesn’t get them. (Like all humanities grad students, though, she knows her I Love Lucy.) The smallest line becomes susceptible to double readings, and when we sense that Evelyn has a game afoot, the only clear thing is that Adam’s her biggest chess piece.

The players are cracking good. Twyford carries off Evelyn like a jaunty con artist, nudging her mark along to ruin with perfectly calibrated cajolings and sexual favors. (She compares his upcoming rhinoplasty to her wrist scars from a cutting episode—”like rings on a tree: experience,” she says—and she’s so smooth we almost don’t notice the speciousness of her argument.)

Barrow gives us a sweetly unguarded Adam, a bug squirming ever so slightly under Evelyn’s tweezers. (And his nose does look smaller after the surgery.) Krauss makes Philip a relaxed and hilarious jerk; White’s Jenny ping-pongs between embarrassment and defensiveness over her lack of distinction. They nearly steal the show as their engagement splinters in the wake of Evelyn (and Adam’s transformation). Director Will Pomerantz weaves them all skillfully, showing desire and control not in embrace but in the middle distance, in the gaze.

How the play and the production go wrong in the end can’t be fully explained without giving away the plot. But here goes: Evelyn turns out to be only a caricature of an academic artist, in thrall to both critical theory and a modernist manifesto that would be a human-rights violation if it weren’t so preposterous and self-justifying.

Still, people might listen to Evelyn’s rants against surface values if she remained a charming monster. But Pomerantz lets Twyford make Evelyn suddenly impassive, a clinical grade-grubber who now dresses as if she’d never been undressed. It’s a letdown, undercutting her force and tipping us toward Adam’s outraged pieties. If you’re going to give your villain the best lines, you’ve got to let her keep the clothes and attitude, too.

But the world of Shape is a straw one anyway. Art distorts its subjects. We are necessarily constructed by our culture. People in love often give away too much of themselves. LaBute has built a career out of twisting these simple facts until they seem scary. His horror stories, which appear to be about the consequences of trust, all end up being about our inability to trust their author’s vision.

Whoever invented TV-Turnoff Week needs to see El Gran Deschave/Final Feliz (loosely translated by Teatro de la Luna as “The Cat’s Out of the Bag”), an Argentine cautionary tale about what happens when the set blows and partners have to talk to one another. It’s not pretty. After the play’s two hours of thin slapstick, domestic cruelty, and inexplicable, spontaneous cross-dressing, you’ll want to buy a monitor for every room you own.

Jorge (Peter Pereyra) is trying to relax, just home from another long day at the body shop he co-owns with Martinuchi (played with elegant arrogance by Hernando Acuna). Jorge’s wife, Susana (Claudia Torres), who spends a lot of time grooming her large doll collection, greets him with lengthy speculations about what’s going to happen that night on her favorite soap opera. (For his part, Jorge is transfixed by visions of having an automatic milking machine on the dream farm he still can’t afford.) Before their TV commits suicide, the two settle for talking past each other. Afterward, their disappointment blooms into recrimination, boasts of infidelity, and relationship meltdown.

El Gran Deschave is worth seeing for the subtle, excellent performances of Pereyra and Torres as a combustible lower-class couple slipping through their 30s while still living off teenage fantasies. Pereyra gives Jorge first a boyish desperation and then a dreamer’s belated rage when Martinuchi buys his share of the shop for a pittance. Torres walks a fine neurotic line with her Susana, a prudish, pretentious stuck-up who still does piano exercises in the hope that someone will give her a concert career. The two actors chew up the three rooms of Hector Quintanilla’s set design, which already had the dog-eared mustiness of a grandma apartment.

Unfortunately, director Mario Marcel doesn’t bring out the latent comedy in the script, by Sergio De Cecco and Armando Chulak. Many laugh lines get lost, such as Jorge’s “Don’t wrinkle it—I have to give it back to the guys” when he shows Susana a porn mag. Don Otto (David Bradley), a sciatica-ridden neighbor who comes in occasionally to lighten things up, seems pitiable instead of funny. And the late-second-act sex play—in which Jorge plays Susana, Susana plays Martinuchi, and a pillow plays Jorge—comes out of nowhere instead of from the couple’s fraying psyches. As a result, the rather didactic realism of the play (written in 1968) quickly weighs down the audience.

A word must also be said about the uncertain efforts of Ed Johnson’s simultaneous interpretation services, which are used at Gala Hispanic Theater as well as Teatro de la Luna. In theory, their live dubbing (done via radio to the headsets) is a great boon for those who speak English but not Spanish and who want to fully experience these companies’ otherwise inaccessible plays. In practice, the operation needs an overhaul. The dubbers, who read from a translated script as they try to match the actors’ lines, too often catch just the ends of long speeches or miss them altogether. And their deliveries are often very flat and thus hard to reconcile with passionate stage performances. The dubbing undoubtedly gets better as a play’s run goes on, but it should be good from opening night. The service puts off people when it should pull them in, giving new meaning to the phrase “lost in translation.” CP