She’s a sow, he’s sheepish

From: The New York Daily News, 12/16/2004

I can’t think of any playwright who appears to get as much pleasure from making his audiences uncomfortable as Neil LaBute.

Often, however, the situations he cooks up are so extreme and grotesque that our response is more nervous laughter than true discomfort.

In “Fat Pig,” LaBute has found a situation well within the perimeters of normal life that perfectly serves his eagerness to make us squirm.

As its title makes clear, this 90-minute play is about a severely overweight woman and how she functions in a world devoted to thinness.

Ashlie Atkinson plays Helen, a hefty librarian. In the first scene she picks up Tom (Jeremy Piven), a good-looking preppy, at a cafeteria, where he is looking for a place to sit.

She does so by her wit, which has a nimbleness her girth precludes in any physical way. At times she’s self-denigrating, at others she has a subtle way of teasing Tom about his awkwardness about, so to speak, the elephant in the room.

It is a testament to the skill of both LaBute and his actors that we are entirely willing to accept the results of her forwardness with a man who, under most circumstances, would not be susceptible to her charms.

For the rest of the play we watch Tom, wracked with his own feelings of uneasiness about Helen, trying to cope with the uncomprehending and sometimes cruel gibes of his co-workers, played by Keri Russell and Andrew McCarthy.

The final scene takes place on a beach, certainly the unhappiest place Helen can be. She and Tom agree to separate but we sense that this is how all Tom’s relationships end, not just this unusually challenging one.

Under the direction of Jo Bonney, the cast makes what sometimes comes perilously close to sitcom a polished, oddly elegant piece of theater.

This is particularly true of Russell and McCarthy, who could easily come across as adolescent. Russell has a hilarious angry monologue. McCarthy has a stylishness that recalls Tony Randall’s supergraceful work in the immortal “Pillow Talk.”

Piven is splendid at conveying Tom’s genuine concern for Helen as well as his bewilderment at his responses to her.

Atkinson triumphs as Helen, making both her savvy humor and her underlying sadness palpable.

LaBute’s play succeeds in the perverse goal he sets. It is, for most of the evening, giddily entertaining, but when it ends you are overcome by a sense of poignancy and awkwardness.