Neil LaBute's plays are a kind of boot camp for sensitivity training. In The Shape of Things, the first of a trilogy addressing our obsession with physical beauty, a cold-blooded female victimizes a male. More often with LaBute, it is the men who are born jerks. But a few do prove salvageable. Such a one is bookish working-class hero Greg of the Tony-nominated Reasons To Be Pretty, which is in its Boston premiere from SpeakEasy Stage Company (at the BCA's Calderwood Pavilion through April 2). That is, if Greg survives the opening scene, in which long-time girlfriend Steph riddles him with verbal machine-gun fire for describing her face as merely "regular." Hell hath no fury like a woman so casually derided.
As in The Shape of Things and Fat Pig (not to mention heavy influence David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago), the dramatis personae include a central pair and their male and female foils. In this case, Greg, who is never without a rumpled Penguin classic but is employed packing boxes in a warehouse, works with married couple Kent and Carly, he a friend of Greg's since high school, she a comely security guard. Kent, swaggering inarticulately in his coveralls, is among the unsalvageable, a man whose compartmentalized objectification of women knows no bounds. Whatever abuse he eventually absorbs, it is not enough.
LaBute has something to say here, however profanely, about our pathetic inability to distinguish between appearance and self-worth. A woman, more than a man, he purports, cannot endure a relationship with someone who does not find her physically attractive. But the play is less a treatise than a journey — at least for passive-aggressive Greg and vulnerable pit bull Steph. They grow in different directions, but at least they grow. And so does LaBute's ability to consider human behavior, much of it bad, rather than just exploit it for shock. The encounters between Greg and Steph ricochet between hilarious attack and tender awkwardness. Even as they part, you feel a tug.
Paul Melone, SpeakEasy's LaBute specialist, helms a stylish, peripatetic production set against Eric Levenson's stacked-hamster-cage industrial-workplace set and pushed along by Rick Brenner's mechanistic music. And the cast ably convey the characters' layered agendas, with Angie Jepson a badgering loose cannon of a bruised woman, Andy Macdonald an okay guy slouching toward evolution, Danielle Muehlen a dim cat discovering her depths, and Burt Grinstead the loathsome if pretty LaBute male beyond whom the neither loathsome nor pretty LaBute has moved.
It's easy to understand the slam heard 'round the world when Ibsen's Nora first closed the door on her condescending husband in 1879. It's harder to make that noise reverberate into 21st-century Connecticut, where the moving van has deposited the heroine of A Doll's House in DollHouse, Theresa Rebeck's 2001 update of the landmark drama. The play, which is being revived by New Repertory Theatre (at the Arsenal Center for the Arts through March 20), cleverly parallels Ibsen's tale of a wife who years ago committed an indiscretion for the sake of her mate and cannot now prevent its coming home to roost with results very different from the spousal heroism for which she had hoped. But Rebeck's Nora is a husband-defined trophy wife by choice; rigid, repressive Victorian patriarchy has nothing to do with it. Moreover, it seems unlikely that this Nora, however momentarily hell bent on finding herself, won't come right back to the affluently accoutered dollhouse she helped create — if not for her kids, then for her credit cards.