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Needful things 

Relativity Theatre Concern expresses mixed feelings with its inaugural show, The Shape of Things. The young troupe's idealistic excitement infuses the production, but the play itself proves deeply cynical about art and humanity.

Student/museum guard Adam (Jeremy Cudd) catches campus art guerrilla Evelyn (co-artistic director Jessie Dougherty) as she's preparing to make a political statement by spray-painting a statue. The nutty hottie seems out of Adam's league, but she gives him her number by spraying it in his corduroy jacket. Once they start dating, Evelyn begins to reshape awkward Adam as if he's one of her sculptures: He sheds insecurities and inhibitions along with his glasses, dorky clothes and excess pounds.

Adam's transformation from Joe Schmo to Joe Cool threatens his boorish best friend (co-artistic director Gabriel Dean) even as it attracts an old flame (Kristin Hathaway-Hansen), while Evelyn tests his willingness to change in increasingly uncomfortable ways. The Shape of Things subtly references Pygmalion's themes of reinvention, but playwright Neil Labute's interests go beyond the class consciousness of George Bernard Shaw. Through Evelyn, Labute shows what happens when a tender human relationship meets a sensibility defined by aesthetics, not conscience.

Until Labute brings his ideas to their striking payoff, this Shape proves pretty scrawny. Perhaps the dull dialogue deliberately comments on the callowness of college students. Still, the young cast members, directed by Chadwick Yarborough, give limited dimensions to their roles. Cudd's solidity grounds the show, but the actor makes Adam such a conventionally nice guy that some of the part's darker aspects go unexplored. Dougherty plays Evelyn so icy and hostile that we question why Adam would trust her so much. Near the end, she gives the artist some vulnerabilities and even a humanizing bit of stage fright, but otherwise offers a one-note portrayal of an intriguing persona.

Not unlike Shape's fictional artist, Labute demonstrates a callousness in pursuing his craft. In works such as Bash and Your Friends and Neighbors, Labute seems to create individuals merely to hate and condemn them. The Shape of Thing's misanthropy makes the play a surprising choice for the "opening statement" of the fledgling theater. Relativity's Shape doesn't trust art, but still wants to celebrate it.

The Shape of Things plays through March 30 at Actor's Express, 887 W. Marietta St., Suite J-107. Mon.-Tues., 8 p.m. $16. 404-502-6655.

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