The need to overcome low self-image and to be thick-skinned enough to overlook demeaning opinions of others is at the heart of Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig, now in its West Coast premiere (through June 10) at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater in Los Angeles. The title suggests a much nastier piece of work than this 90-minute, intermission-less script from the smart and fearless author of such plays as The Shape of Things, Autobahn, and Bash and the films In the Company of Men, Nurse Betty, and Your Friends and Neighbors.
Instead, Fat Pig seems to settle in more like a contemporary television dramedy with a single story line and stock characters from hit shows. There's a further dimension of familiarity in the attracted opposites at its core, who give it a Disney fable quality: like a reverse anthropomorphizing of incompatible cartoon animals out to set an example for the rest of the forest. Yet the kind of menace that LaBute previously employed in his unsettling comedies shadows this story beneath the surface, waiting until the final curtain to rise up and make us pay for our laughs.
Obesity in this country is, of course, no joke. There’s no question that it is dangerous to be greatly overweight and/or the victim of compulsive overeating, yet LaBute manages to have his cake and eat it, too. His characters divide between master purveyors of fat jokes and heart-breaking targets of them. We are early on given permission to laugh when the character referenced by the mean-spirited title reveals that she is quite comfortable in her own skin. Fat Pig is in fact not about how or why one becomes obese, but about the more universal issue of how groups treat the "other," and what happens when people try to see past those definitions.
LaBute and director Jo Bonney push the question of how audience members will react when the title character first appears to the forefront. They immediately turn the tables by stationing Helen (Kirsten Vangsness) on stage for pre-show. Standing at a high table, eating what looks to be a starchy lunch from a cafeteria tray, she occasionally looks up from Walter Isaacson’s hefty new Einstein biography (she's a librarian and voracious reader) and looks around the lunchroom at the audience without making eye contact. Accustomed to eating alone, she has spread her gear over the two-person tabletop, which forces Tom (Scott Wolf) to make eye contact and conversation with her when he needs a spot.