A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The words comedy and tender love don't exactly send Neil LaBute's name popping into your head. His work is more typically associated with gritty, downbeat stories. Yet, Fat Pig, his latest play is a laugh-studded theatrical gem and its love affair is genuine and engaging. Not that it qualifies as a fluffy romance that you forget the minute you leave the Lortel Theatre where it just opened.
The idea of a romance between an attractive guy with an upscale career and an amply endowed Rubenesque woman does have comic potential. In LaBute's play, however, the laughs are not just for entertainment but a means for jogging us into thinking more deeply about the attitude that equates super-thin, athletic and youthful looks with success -- an obsession that has made multi-millionaires out of diet doctors and surgeons doing plastic surgery and procedures like stomach stapling.
The serious subtext in no way diminishes the amusement to be derived from the odd-couple romance, breezily directed by Jo Bonney to make the intermission free play fly by without ever seeming rushed. The title for each of seven scenes are projected on Louisa Thompson's cleverly flexible and impeccably detailed scenic design. Tom (Jeremy Piven) and Helen's (Ashlie Atkinson) first encounter at a self-service restaurant in a town somewhere near Chicago simultaneously dishes up a full course laugh menu and establishes the characters so that we can buy into the possibility that their casual conversation could lead to something else.
I can't recall when I last saw a funnier and more astutely written pick-up scene as "That First Meeting With Her." It begins with several completely silent minutes during which we have a chance to observe the character for whom the play is named (her real name is Helen). She puts her very full lunch tray down at a stand-up table and proceeds to read a book and munch contentedly on several slices of pizza.
With no other tables in evidence and Robert Kaplowitz's sound design creating the atmosphere of a busy restaurant behind the panel dividing the eating area from the main restaurant, it's easy to move to the "Meeting" which brings a young man (that's Tom) out from behind the back, tray in hand and no place to put it. The pizza eater makes room for him to share her counter. One thing leads to another. Her size immediately enters the conversation. It seems when he walked in and commented on how big the place was, she thought he was referring to her figure-- something she's apparently become accustomed to hearing, though to Tom such a comment would be rude. By the time she's offered him her second rice pudding, we know that she's bright, has a good sense of humor (even about her weight) and is different from people the more buttoned-up, young wheeler-dealer usually runs across. At least one date looks like a distinct possiblity.
I won't trouble you with too many plot details though it will come as no surprise that a relationship does develop between Helen and Tom and that all is not smooth sailing. The twists and turns are supplied by the two characters who more closely fit the usual LaBute unlikeable character mold. They are Tom's colleagues at an office where what they do is as vague and insubstantial as their personal lives. There's bored and spoiling for trouble Carter (Andrew McCarthy) and Jeannie (Keri Russell), with whom Tom was unwise enough to break the rule about mixing business and pleasure.
The press release for the play asked: "In the age of no carbs, nip tucks and extreme makeovers, will Tom destroy his chance for true happiness?" That question assumes that choosing Helen would bring such happiness. But whatever his choice (and I'm not going to tell you here even though you'll undoubtedly predict it correctly), as long as Tom remains in his tight little world it will be a damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't choice. In the final analysis your pleasure in watching this play will come not from how it ends but from the compelling performances, the smartly written and staged script.
As played by Jeremy Piven, whom many in the audience will recognize from the HBO series Entourage, Tom is totally believable and so sympathetic that he has us rooting for him to do the right thing. Newcomer Ashlie Atkinson is heartwrenchingly vulnerable as Helen.
The funny lines are never throwaways but, like songs in a good musical, they build the characters and move the story forward; for example, when Tom takes Helen to a Sushi restaurant on their first date and introduces yer to yellow-fin it leads to his explanation that this is " traditionally the 'biggest boned' of the tuna family . . .with a hearty, heavy flavor that some might even call jolly" --a throw-back to her comment during their first meeting about big people being thought off as jolly
Fat Pig might leave you with another question. Have Tom and Carter and Jeannie made super-thin bodies so compulsory that the only people keeping pizza parlors and bakeries in business are grossly overweight or too old to care?
Since the play's venue is in the heart of a neighborhood dotted with calorie loving Italian restaurants and bakeries, you can answer this for yourself with a walk down nearby Bleeker Street. When I stopped at my favorite bakery cafe on my way to the Lortel last Saturday night, the place was packed with people (many thin, none grossly fat) enjoying almond horns, biscottis and other goodies with their cappuccinos. Three other cafes I passed on my way towards Christopher Street were also jammed. John's Pizza had a line that wound around the block. In short for every Tom, Carter and Jeannie there's still a Tom, Dick, Harry and Mary who knows how to strike a balance between too much and too little.
Finally, while Mr. LaBute's play makes the big girl the victim of the sheep psychology that links happiness and success to physical appearance, there's another issue that tends to get buried when a writer champions the big girl (or guy). I'm talking about the fact that while the craze for reality show makeovers and Carter's disdain for fat people (or for that matter, anyone who looks different) is off-putting, there's the alarming increase in obesity among children as well as adults to consider. Thus, while being fat is no sin and being thin and gorgeous, like Fat Pig's Jeannie, is not a happily ever after romance insurance policy -- being overweight is a health hazard. That's why Neil LaBute was smart to tell his story within a comedic framework. The result is a slim, ninety minute play fat with theatricality and dialogue to appreciate and ideas to think about.
LINKS TO OTHER LA BUTE PLAY REVIEWS
The Distance From Here (London & New York)
The Shape of Things/LaBute, Neil (London and NYC)
The Shape of Things (Berkshires)
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
Click image to buy.
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.