Finding acceptance is no small matter

From: Newsday, 12/16/2004
by: Linda Winer

Who among us could approach “Fat Pig” without an involuntary visceral flinch? Sure, Kirstie Alley will soon have her own autobiographical Showtime sitcom called “Fat Actress,” Hollywood is pushing “Fat Albert” for the holidays and, as we speak, women as resilient as Eve Ensler and Whoopi Goldberg are wallowing about their imperfect bodies all over Broadway.

But “Fat Pig,” which the MCC Theater opened last night at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, is written by Neil LaBute, our dark star of theater and film morality, whose most disturbingly entertaining work wields the male psyche as a blunt instrument.

Besides, the love story of a regular-size guy and a big woman is dedicated to David Mamet, LaBute’s nearest forefather in the satirization and/or celebration of the female-fearing, sick-puppy male. Hoo-ha, we think as we settle down for a 90-minute exploration of the deep folds of one of our last cultural frontiers. This could hurt.

But the shock of the evening is how shockingly cautious it is. “Fat Pig” is a title with a play on it, rather than the other way around. Ashlie Atkinson is admirably courageous as Helen, the smart, sexual and credibly self-protective librarian who tells her surprising new suitor, “I feel OK with who I am. The trick is getting other people to be OK with it.”

As usual, the prolific playwright has attracted major crossover talent to throw themselves over the edge for his theater work. Unusually, his director is a woman, Jo Bonney, whose bold and nuanced staging of her husband, Eric Bogosian’s, testosterone-driven plays suggests all the right instincts for such a potential minefield of shame and offense.

We should be smack in LaBute’s comfort zone here, a mid-level macho corporate office that feels like the one in his brutal first film, “In the Company of Men.” Jeremy Piven, on hiatus from playing the agent in HBO’s “Entourage” to sleazoid perfection, is Tom, one of LaBute’s pleasantly handsome fellows who just might be capable of unexpected strength. Or not.

He meets Helen at her most vulnerable, a solitary woman eating pizza and reading at one of those awkward stand-up tables – designed with chrome and glass functionality by Louisa Thompson. In fact, by the time he starts chatting with her over his healthful salad, we already have been watching her eat for an agonizing stretch of silence. They instantly click, and LaBute writes this scene with exhilarating grasp of the mysterious profundity of human chemistry.

But Helen is almost too decent. Tom’s office buddy Carter – enjoyably played with reptilian lack of self-awareness by Andrew McCarthy – is not just superficial. The guy measures a female colleague – and Tom’s former girlfriend – in grams of butt fat. The woman – Keri Russell of “Felicity,” in her tentative stage debut – is not merely the opposite of fat. This Jeannie is drop-dead-starlet gorgeous, yet unfathomably desperate to get Tom back.

LaBute works overtime to make Helen’s competition a strong woman, not a bimbo, but this strength comes out as brittle, physically aggressive and pathetic. And, lest the deck is not stacked high enough against dramatic credibility, Tom finally introduces his controversial new woman to his friends at an office beach party. Watching Helen decide what to wear is a poignant moment, but not enough to keep the plot from seeming an excuse to put her in a bathing suit.

We wait for the twist, the curveball, the revelation that might explain why LaBute, of all adventurers in emotional damage, chose to tumble into a world defined by psychobabble and women’s magazines. He seems frightened of the real unknown territory, the cultural and primal underbelly of eroticism and taboo between couples of mixed body type.