To those uninitiated with Neil LaBute’s theatre of cruelty, the opening could pass for a meet-cute: cool art student Evelyn (Amber Anderson) chats up bookish nerd Adam (Luke Newton), telling him she finds him attractive in the same breath as saying that she doesn’t like his hair. But Evelyn’s words are a warning sign as she sets about chillingly remoulding Adam from geek to good-looking boyfriend – from his clothes to nails and a nose job.
LaBute’s 2001 dark comedy was written for the stage before being adapted into the better-known film starring Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd, and Nicky Allpress’s slick production reminds us of its innate theatricality.
The dialogue still sounds fast, fresh and funny, the cast catching its beats, although the savagery in the script never fully bares its teeth. The tension is better raised in matters of friendship and betrayal when Adam’s friends Phil (Majid Mehdizadeh-Valoujerdy) and Jenny (Carla Harrison-Hodge) enter the fray but some of the manipulations between Evelyn and Adam feel softened.
Still it retains LaBute’s cruel intent at its heart: Evelyn is a dead-eyed amoralist and Anderson, a screen actor making her stage debut, brings a brattish sense of entitlement. Adam is endearingly unworldly at the start, his physical transformation more subtle than Rudd’s but no less convincing. He is not the same teary victim as Christine from In the Company of Men, coming back with anger at Evelyn, which undercuts her cruelty but makes their dynamic more believable.
The play’s big psychological reveal – that Adam changes on the inside as he becomes more superficially attractive – is hardly deeply mined insight. It works better as an analogy to the compromises that couples make for each other, especially in controlling relationships.
The production comes with period elements intact from 90s music (Air, the Chemical Brothers) to cultural references (Women’s lib, American Gigolo), and Peter Butler’s set is made up of suitably soulless blank white lines with occasional neon and light showers.
If it loses some of the intimacies of film, it shows these characters up close, literally: scenes take place front of stage so the characters’ faces are in ours, some sitting among us so we can study their expressions as Evelyn reveals her dark denouement. The ending lands with a soft punch but still leaves us dwelling on LaBute’s seductive sociopaths, and what, exactly, makes them tick.
• At Park theatre, London, until 1 July.