Playwright Neil LaBute is a king of nasty, but I've also always thought of him as tough-minded, daring and original. Now that I've seen Fat Pig, though, I'm wondering whether I've been fooled. Is it just that nastiness almost always strikes us as clever; that we tend to think the cynical, who refuse to let sentimentality cloud their vision, see things more clearly than the rest of us? But other LaBute plays contain subtext, irony, ambiguity. Fat Pig has none of these. It's flat and thin, a straightforward, almost schematic story with a quivering pink core.
Tom, a shallow careerist male of the kind we remember from In the Company of Men, falls in love with Helen, a librarian. Helen is warm, sensual, life-loving — and overweight. Tom's co-workers mock him mercilessly. The question that fuels the drama is whether he'll have the inner fortitude to stick by Helen in the face of this mockery — and it's just deep enough to keep Carrie and her friends occupied through an episode of Sex and the City, or perhaps to inspire an after-school special on body image.
Sure, the concept of the disconsonance between our inner and outer selves, of the ways in which we perceive ourselves and others, could be explored with depth and insight — but it isn't here. There are no real plot complications, unexpected turns or surprises, and there's also not a whole lot of thought. Like the plot, the characters have no texture. Helen is steadfastly funny and sweet throughout. She's a tiny bit defensive, but we don't see any serious insecurity, none of the inner turmoil that perhaps caused her weight problems. Why is she overweight? We never know. The co-workers are stick figures, pure and simple: Carter, a shallow womanizer, and Jeannie, with whom Tom once had an affair, a simple-minded shrew. There could be a shiver of something interesting here — if, for example, Jeannie really cared for Tom and her anger stemmed from pain. But no, she's just an empty person with a great body and a huge sense of outrage that Tom should have chosen anyone at all over her, let alone a "sow."
Presented by Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company through November 23, Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 888-512-7469, www.boulderensembletheatre.org.
And Tom's simply a wuss who wavers back and forth until we're ready to scream at him to make up his bloody mind. Are there reasons — other than purely shallow ones — for him to think long and hard before taking on a partner with an eating problem? Complicated pregnancies, for instance, or later-in-life illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma? This play offers not a murmur about the odd paradox that has Americans both more obsessed with dieting than any other nation on earth and also fatter, and not even a nod to how ironic this is in an increasingly hungry world.
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The Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company's production is competent, but it isn't vibrant enough to alleviate the problems of the script. The lighting and the set are both uni-dimensional; in a play so focused on appearance, you expect a bit more attention to the visuals. Of the four actors, the liveliest and most interesting is Brian Landis Folkins, who plays Carter. His thoughts are as superficial as everyone else's, but Folkins gives him vitality and just the hint of an inner life. In fact, the play's one moment of insight comes when Carter remembers going to the store as a teenager with his 300-pound-plus mother, his embarrassment and shame, and the way he turned his rage on her. Stuck in the cardboard character of constantly shouting Jeannie, the usually charming and talented Kate Avallone is only irritating. And who the hell dressed her? These are not the clothes of a woman at a prestigious New York firm. Jeremy Make is so subdued as Tom that it's hard to figure out just what he's thinking at any moment, or to care very much. Jenni Graham — who's really not all that overweight — makes Helen somewhat appealing, but not the life-giving figure the script suggests. When Tom comments on her terrific laugh, for example, we wonder just what he's talking about. Deeper character work from Graham and Make might have rescued these characters — as well as this production.