The four-character play at Circle Theatre, The Shape of Things, by Neil LaBute, is Pygmalion in reverse. It’s about a powerful young woman who changes an awkward, insecure nerd into a good-looking hunk. For the most part this transformation from geek to chic is also a fascinating study in self-delusion. The provocative drama, tightly directed by Kristin Gehring (FOREST PARK REVIEW Horizons Editor) was an off-Broadway hit in 2001.

LaBute likes to make us squirm with his usually no-holds barred depictions of sexual politics. He made a noisy splash with his mean-spirited 1997 film, In the Company of Men, in which a couple of cruel male co-workers heartlessly victimize a young deaf secretary. This time LaBute puts a gender-bending twist on that debut film, only in The Shape of Things the victim is a willing participant in his own humiliation. The conflict grows out of our seemingly recent preoccupation with cosmetic appearances, like breast implants, tummy tucks and “Extreme Makeovers.”

Evelyn (Andrea Mustain) is an intense feminist artist who meets a pasty, pudgy, part-time campus security guard named Adam (Joshua Rollins) while he’s on the clock at a college art museum. She’s about to disfigure a classical male nude statue with a can of spray paint because censors have added a strategically-placed fig leaf. Though Adam doesn’t agree with Evelyn’s proposed act of defiance, he finds her totally captivating.

Adam’s relatively inexperienced with women. He uses uptight, archaic school terminology like “P.D.A.” (public display of affection.) But for some inexplicable reason, Evelyn is drawn to Adam. She seems to find his nerdy, squeaky-clean persona endearing. She spray paints her phone number on the inside of his ratty jacket. Even though they’re probably as different as two people can be, soon they’re an item.

Almost immediately, however, Evelyn begins molding Adam into a more physically attractive and confident person. Evelyn gets her hooks into him pretty deep. He’s so smitten, in fact, he’s virtual putty in her hands. He allows her to take over his life.

Thus awestruck Adam begins his transformation, losing weight and working out. She persuades him to dress more fashionably, to get a hipper haircut. He stops biting his nails, gets contact lenses, and even undergoes cosmetic surgery. Before long, Adam is a whole new person. Not only does he look better, but Evelyn has brought him out of his shell. Their relationship steadily intensifies.

Mustain gives a gutsy, edgy performance as manipulative, emotional bully Evelyn. She’s sexy and domineering from the get-go, yet you believe her falling for Adam’s sweetness and warmth and hope for the best for this dork and dominatrix.

There are lots of short, pointed scenes in which the dialogue flows well and the playwright coyly disguises the true game plan of what’s happening. But just as the story begins to grow a bit sluggish, LaBute drops a bomb with a startling eleventh hour plot twist.

The other two characters, Adam’s closest friends, are Philip (Zach Welsheimer) and Jenny (Kyla Brundage). Phil, Adam’s former roommate, is an arrogant, abrasive know-it-all. His fiancée Jenny, who once had a crush on shy Adam, is actually Adam’s female counterpart”sweet but frumpy and unassertive.

The interactions between the four main characters intensify. When Evelyn and Phil blow up and rage at one another, Adam and Jenny instinctively try to smooth things over.

Bob Knuth’s cleverly compartmentalized set accommodates a range of locations, from an intimate bedroom to a trendy restaurant.

In his first scene before the makeover, Rollins has Adam’s uptight persona down pat. His easy, amiable quality makes Adam real. We believe his initial insecurity and hesitancy. But physically his “before” look isn’t convincing. He needs to appear more unkempt, perhaps even slovenly. His glasses, for instance, are far more in style than nerdy. He’s wearing a bulky, busy-print ski sweater but he doesn’t appear flabby or padded underneath at all. It’s no big deal that he exchanges his shabby Salvation Army-looking jacket in for Tommy Hilfiger. Despite his strong performance, he looks too appealing to be truly convincing as a loser.

It’s a weird world Adam and Evelyn live in. They seem to exist in a vacuum. Does he ever wonder about what her big art project might be, for instance? Does he also never encounter anyone who closely knows her? Does she have one friend? She’s Eve to his Adam. He’s an unformed man. Yet she’s not truly Eve. She’s more accurately the tempting serpent.

Though all four of the characters are unsympathetic, LaBute’s in-your-face style and themes leave us with much to talk about. It’s a well-acted and thought-provoking production not just about love and art and the damage that can be done by manipulating a relationship, but also our obsession with surface appearances.

The play is performed with no intermission and runs about 95 minutes.

Joseph M. Heaton is the stage manager.

The Shape of Things: Circle Theatre, 7300 Madison St. Through May 22. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m.; Thursdays May 5, 12, 19 only at 8 p.m. Tickets $22/$20. Call 771-0700 for reservations.