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.
Tom Sullivan (the name also belongs to a real-life blind entertainer) discovers over the course of a quippy chat that Helen also tips the scale in the personality department. The twentysomething Tom, at sixes and sevens regarding his life direction after another lack-luster relationship, ventures a cautious request to see Helen sometime.
His parents might have said about ordering off the menu, “Don’t take a bite of something you can’t finish” but Tom appears to be blind to Helen’s weight. He wants to test his mettle and probe for a deeper connection with someone. He may also, given his boyish Michael J. Fox irresistibility, subconsciously believe that even a brief affair with a hunk would be a net gain for Helen. However, foreseeing the ridicule a relationship with her will heap upon him from friends and co-workers, he quickly closets their get-togethers.
Bonney keeps the depth of the inner turmoil in these two from surfacing for most of the play. It's a measured strategy to provide greater impact later on, but it does make the bulk of the play seem lighter than it otherwise might. LaBute has kept his stage tidy with only two additional characters, both from Tom‘s world.
Without a friend of her own, Helen can't let her hair down and show the mix of euphoria and dread that accompany suddenly becoming the object of desire of a truly cute guy. We only glimpse how she’s feeling through her carefully monitored interaction with Tom, where she must keep the lid on her feelings so as not to freak him out. Structurally, therefore, Vangsness is prohibited from making this show her own, but she gives us glimpses into her true feelings as much as she can, and sounds the plea we should all heed: "Just be honest with me."
Instead, Tom and Helen's relationship is reflected in the cool, cruel world of Tom’s office, where the people are incapable of looking unattractive, and of looking at the "unattractive" with anything but contempt or pity. Ironically, they appear incapable of engaging in healthy relationships of their own. Jeannie (Andrea Anders), a sexy 28-year-old from the accounting department who has been dating Tom, has to wring from him the fact that he isn’t interested anymore.
Wisecracking co-worker Drew Carter (Chris Pine) is given a breadbasket of assorted roles: confidante, nemesis, blockhead, and clear-eyed seer (with his own shameful story of an obese loved one). To his credit, Pine keeps all these facets within his acting wheelhouse and makes this grab-bag character feel real. It's also a very entertaining performance.
The jilted Jeannie also gives us the embodiment of that funny-painful experience of knowing you’re in a go-nowhere relationship, but becoming incensed when the other person pulls the plug. At a crap table, however, the real-life odds against the most highly compatible Helen being chosen over even a high-maintenance Jeannie could fatten any bankroll into the GNP of Kuwait.
Still, in the world of literature, anything is possible. At one point, there’s a slight evocation that, like Huck, Tom has escaped the real world and now floats in harmony with the person he freed, and who has freed him in return. Twain’s raft ride through race relations will have a happier ending. If Tom tosses Helen overboard, she likely will not make it back to the healthy spot she had reached in her life. Instead, she could sink under the weight of a rejection she had allowed herself to believe the world had moved beyond.
Bonney has an excellent design team with costumes by Christina Haatainen Jones, lights by Lap-Chi Chu, a sleek and versatile multi-location unit set by Louisa Thompson, and a tough, engaging soundtrack by Colbert S. Davis IV.
CREDITS by Neil LaBute, directed by Jo Bonney, Louisa Thompson, set; Tina Haatainen Jones, costumes; Lap-Chi Chu, lights; Colbert S. Davis IV, sound; Frankie Ocasio, stage management
WITH Andrea Anders, Chris Pine, Scott Wolf, Kirsten Vangsness
West Coast Premiere Geffen Playhouse / Audrey Skirball Theatre May 5-June 10 (Opened May 11, rev. 5/10)