Forced to face the fat issue

From: The Globe & Mail, 12/16/2004
by: Simon Houpt

Those who leave Neil LaBute’s films or plays with their blood boiling, swearing under their breath that he should be sent to some sort of humanity boot camp, might want to be careful what they wish for. LaBute chronicles emotional brutality with the detachment of a laboratory scientist, and his acidic portraits of the evil that men and women do to each other, in pieces like In the Company of Men, Bash and The Shape of Things , often inspire extreme antipathy, if not walk-outs and revulsion.

With Fat Pig , which opened off-Broadway last night, it feels as if LaBute is trying to play in a different key, sidling away from his tendency to render some individuals in purely evil notes and dulling the fierceness. The change provokes an existential conundrum: What happens if you remove the stark brutality that characterizes LaBute’s work? Do you get the theatrical equivalent of low-carb spaghetti, or low-fat goose-liver pâté?

If the food metaphors are obvious, apologizing for them wouldn’t be in the spirit of Helen (Ashlie Atkinson), the hefty librarian who doesn’t care much what other people think of her. Chatting up Tom at a lunch counter, she impresses him with her free spirit and love of old war movies. Tom (Jeremy Piven from The Larry Sanders Show and Entourage , playing against his usual lecherous type) is a mild species of LaBute’s familiar male office drone. A nice enough guy on his own, if emotionally immature, he’ll indulge in occasional bouts of juvenile humour with his co-worker Carter (a reptilian Andrew McCarthy), and blithely lead on Jeannie (Keri Russell), the girl in accounting he’s been dating, because he can’t be bothered to tell her that she bores him.

When his interest in Helen blossoms into a romance, Tom has trouble recognizing the self-delusion that could doom the relationship: Sure, he finds her physically and emotionally attractive, but that doesn’t mean he’s comfortable walking down the street arm-in-arm with a fat chick. Worse, he must endure the nasty ribbing of Jeannie and Carter. Though he doesn’t like or even respect them, the teasing draws blood.

“People are not comfortable with difference,” Carter says, offering dime-store insight into the human condition to justify his own prejudices. “Fags, retards, cripples. Fat people. Old folks, even. The thing they represent that’s so scary is what we could be, how vulnerable we all are. I mean, any of us. Some wrong gene splice, a bad back flip off the trampoline, too many cartons of Oreos!”

Unusually, LaBute gives Carter a humanizing back story to explain his contempt for chunky folk. Though it doesn’t excuse his actions — and Andrew McCarthy has no trouble playing a nasty piece of work — it makes them understandable. But it also means that, perhaps for the first time in a LaBute play, we’re left without an obvious villain, unless you want to count Western society in general. Certainly, Tom is as devastated as Helen by the intensity of his own in-born prejudices.

Director Jo Bonney confronts us with our own feelings about Rubenesque roundness, staging a bedroom scene in which Helen wears lingerie, and another in which she takes to the beach in a swimsuit. Ashlie Atkinson carries such joyful aplomb that we see Helen through Tom’s eyes, and understand why he would choose her over the twig-thin Jeannie.

Keri Russell, having left her winsome glow somewhere on the set of TV’s Felicity , turns in a brittle, mannered performance as Jeannie. Some may feel she looks ill at ease, unused to acting on stage. But as she bobs back and forth on her heels, looking for chinks in Tom’s armour to understand why he dumped her, you may feel she resembles nothing so much as a punching bag.