She’s Fat, He’s a Man. Can They Find Love?

From: The New York Times, 12/16/2004
by: Ben Brantley

A warmth that feels suspiciously like love has sneaked into the icy world of Neil LaBute. The bleakest and most unforgiving moralist in contemporary American film (“In the Company of Men”) and theater (“The Mercy Seat”), Mr. LaBute usually specializes in portraits of people who need people only for corrupt, sometimes carnal and often cruel purposes.

But with his latest work, “Fat Pig,” at the Lucille Lortel Theater, Mr. LaBute presents a couple who experience real and reciprocal passion and affection. This being a play by Mr. LaBute, the relationship is of course doomed, doomed, doomed. But not for Shakespearean reasons of crossed stars or self-sacrifice. The built-in self-destruction device for Mr. LaBute’s lovers is the unavoidable problem that one of them is a man.

The confrontationally titled “Fat Pig,” which opened last night in an MCC production directed by Jo Bonney and starring Jeremy Piven (of the HBO series “Entourage”), is on one level yet another LaButean demonstration that men are paragons of bad faith and cowardice. To quote a female character in the play, the species of male humans who fall under genus LaBute are “baby boys who run around in nice clothes” when “all they really wanna do is breast-feed for the rest of their days.”

Yet “Fat Pig” is also the most emotionally engaging and unsettling of Mr. LaBute’s plays since “Bash,” his scary bill of short dramas five years ago about the un-Christian behavior of four Mormons. This is partly because Mr. LaBute lets his audience step over the boundaries of clinical observation to empathize with his protagonist – a charming, handsome rising-executive type named Tom – and with the woman he falls for, Helen, a warm and witty librarian who is conspicuously overweight.

But a show that still might have been merely a point-proving exercise is immeasurably enriched by the skill and honesty of the two young performers who portray Tom and Helen. They are Mr. Piven, who makes a smashing New York stage debut as Tom, and Ashlie Atkinson, a recent graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse, whose appealingly drawn Helen implicitly and fully condemns the nasty hollowness of the play’s title.

Not that Mr. LaBute is letting anyone off easy. Louisa Thompson’s sterile, aluminum-toned set, on full view before the show begins, accurately promises that Mr. LaBute will be running his human rats through yet another equivalent of a laboratory maze. And the sections of “Fat Pig” that are set in Tom’s workplace, where he is regularly ridiculed for dating a woman of size, are filled with the kind of snarky office banter that Mr. LaBute mastered long ago in his screenplay for “In the Company of Men.”

In fact, there is an aspect of the automatic pilot about the scenes in which Tom parries the verbal and occasionally physical assaults of his annoying co-workers, the leering Carter (Andrew McCarthy) and the svelte but shrill Jeannie (bravely taken on by Keri Russell, who became an American sweetheart as the title character of the television series “Felicity”).

Mr. LaBute’s volleys of crude, insulting jests said in truth are starting to feel as formulaic as dialogue from a long-running sitcom. Mr. McCarthy, best known for flamed-out-youth films of the 1980’s like “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Less Than Zero,” talks this talk quite well. But he has the disadvantage of taking on a LaBute archetype already embodied to perfection on screen by Aaron Eckhart.

The real problem with Carter and Jeannie, though, is that they wear their venom so visibly. It’s not that I don’t believe there are morally bankrupt souls in any American business that employs more than, say, a dozen people. (All right, make that two.) But in a play, if not in life, it is more gratifying to discover their iniquity by degrees. As they are presented here, Carter and Jeannie are simply malevolent social forces that test the strength of Tom’s commitment to a partner his peers find aesthetically unsuitable.

Tom, on the other hand, is a less obviously contemptible case. Mr. Piven’s winningly modest performance makes you understand why Tom is indeed the sort of guy who could appreciate the virtues of a woman like the sharp-witted, self-deprecating Helen. Mr. Piven insists that you are always aware of his character’s soft and craven center, but in ways that hold a mirror to anyone who has ever felt even slightly embarrassed about a romantic attachment. (And isn’t that everyone?)

Ms. Atkinson, in turn, is not just a good and pathetic victim. She lets you sense the aggressive neediness beneath Helen’s hard-won bravado. A scene in which she tries on beachwear before going on a company picnic with Tom is heartbreaking because Ms. Atkinson and Ms. Bonney make sure that Helen exposes as much inner doubt as ample flesh. That said, whatever their respective weights may be, Helen and Tom are truly attractive figures who emanate real made-for-each-other chemistry.

This means that as mechanically predetermined as the plot of “Fat Pig” might be, you still feel a pang of personal loss when the inevitable descends with a thud. Allowing theatergoers to experience that pang is a serious step forward for a playwright who has always been most comfortable with judgmental distance.