Neil LaBute, as we learned from The Shape of Things, is not one to soften blows. His characters delight in spewing vitriol from behind neatly-placed masks while still coaxing regular laughs from the audience. But in Fat Pig, the Off-Broadway play that in 2004 introduced Jeremy Piven to the New York stage (and that ended so well, right?), LaBute ventures into unchartered territory. Sure, his classic characters are still there, bantering rapidly and verbally clawing at each other, but there’s also a stab at real, reciprocated tenderness and—dare I say it?—love.
Unfortunately, the effect is more of a drag than a revelation. When fit, successful businessman Tom meets funny, outgoing librarian Helen at lunch one day, even he’s surprised when he ends up asking her out on a date. Helen is, as the title so nastily implies, a rather large woman. But amid the cruel societal assumptions and vile words and actions of Tom’s extremely shallow co-workers, their relationship blossoms. However, this just wouldn’t be LaBute if the couple wasn’t headed for disaster, and over the course of 90 minutes director Kevin Moriarty shows us how they get there.
Fat Pig was not written as a companion piece to The Shape of Things, but by presenting the two side-by-side in repertory as the Dallas Theater Center is doing now, it’s all but impossible not to compare and contrast. Where The Shape of Things’ characters kept secrets, created tension, and danced an escalating dance of manipulation, the foursome of Fat Pig seem too exposed, too obvious. Tom’s smirking, juvenile co-worker Carter (Steven Walters) gets some of the night’s best lines, but he’s also a non-stop barrage of hateful comments and downright mean behavior from the get-go. Likewise, Tom’s past office romance with the svelte, uptight Jeannie (Aleisha Force) turns her into a shrieking woman scorned almost immediately after she learns of Helen. It’s a treat to see Walters and Force in such a different light from their Shape of Things characters, but sadly they’re not given much to explore.
Regan Adair and Christina Vela have the more difficult task of creating a sweet if at times insecure love story. While Tom’s scenes in his office involving Carter and Jeannie crackle with energy, the courtship between Tom and Helen droops and crawls. It’s clear LaBute is uncomfortable being honest and sweet as opposed to honest and malicious and the dialogue suffers as a result. Adair and Vela each give off an inherent confidence and admirable naturalistic style, but never seem to really connect with each other.
Looking entirely different from my last outing to the Wyly is the stage. Gone are the soft drapes and blurred edges of Evelyn and Adam’s world; here we are presented with sharp edges, unforgiving fluorescent lights and mirrored walls, a nice wink to the almighty importance placed on physical appearances. Everything is on display here, even the two actresses in their swimsuits near the end.
The challenging tone of the play and its repetitive questioning (how important are looks, anyway?) wears thin for both the plot and the couple. It feels like an idea not fully formed, as evidenced by the abrupt and wholly unsatisfying ending. The title may be confrontational, but perhaps it’s just a cover-up for the play’s overall insecurity.
<em>Photo courtesy Dallas Theater Center</em>