Neil LaBute, who became celebrated, then repetitious by putting shocking twists on dark gender-character studies, has taken one of the more surprising twists in his interesting career.
We can't call "The Money Shot" lighthearted, exactly. But the prolific playwright has put a fresh, joyously impolite edge on two overdone genres -- the sex comedy and the Hollywood satire -- simultaneously.
The results are a good and mean little farce that, despite the broad sides of his targets, finds lots of tender spots where the humor can reveal least as much as it bruises. He manages this with the help of an expert cast of excellent sports and director Terry Kinney's deftly physical production, which somehow makes things feel more believable as they become increasingly ridiculous.
We are on the sleek deck of an enviable modern palace high in the Hollywood Hills (designed by Derek McLane). The place belongs to Karen (Elizabeth Reaser), a market-savvy movie star who, since coming out as a lesbian, fears being on the downward side of her peak. She lives there with Bev (Callie Thorne), a middle-rung film editor with no clout to match her superior education.
Here come aging action star and proto-LaBute misogynist Steve (Fred Weller at his wondrously jerky best) and starlet bride Missy (Gia Crovatin, all blonde and pale-pink), whose weight he oversees because, at 24, she's at that age when women's "legs get all thick and cheesy in the back."
They have gathered for a dinner party, but, really, for Karen and Steve to prep their partners on what is generally called "the situation." That is, a director wants the stars to have real sex on-screen, an idea they hope will put the currency back in their careers.
Before conversation turns to listing allowable sex acts, there are tantrums and much bragging, insults and instant apologies and a genuine wrestling match. Poor starving Missy sneaks food and performs her insanely inappropriate gymnastic scene from "The Crucible."
Reaser, a late replacement for Heather Graham, delightfully flips between hysterical narcissist and brand-obsessed humanitarian. Weller spouts Steve's idiocies with the grandiosity of a man who has never heard himself speak.
You think there are no new ways to make fun of celebrity, but LaBute finds more.
WHAT "The Money Shot"
WHERE Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St.
INFO $69-$125; 212-352-3101; mcctheater.org
BOTTOM LINE LaBute lightens up.