- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2006

Fat isn’t a four-letter word, but it might as well be. Our attitudes toward weight and appearance are confronted with blistering honesty and wit in Neil LaBute’s play “Fat Pig.” The production at Studio Theatre, under the astute direction of Paul Mullins, is both a liberating and painful experience.

Liberating because it is almost unheard of for a big woman to be seen onstage — or anywhere, for that matter — in a sexual context. Smart, appealing Helen (Kate Debelack) is not the fat best friend or an object of humor or pity. She is the romantic lead, the gal who gets the guy, in this case a buff, successful executive named Tom (Tyler Pierce).

Like any other romantic lead, Helen gets her share of steamy boudoir scenes with her lover. It was interesting to gauge the reaction of the audience at the sight of a thin man romancing a fat woman — many people squirmed uncomfortably in their seats and you wonder if they were disturbed because of their issues with body size or because the scenes were genuinely hot, or perhaps a combination of both.

Not only that, but when you first meet Helen she is eating —unashamedly and with great pleasure, nibbling on pizza. It is so rare today to see someone simply enjoying food that the image is shocking, almost pornographic.

Mr. Mullins and set designer Debra Booth play with our perceptions throughout “Fat Pig,” not only confronting our feelings about weight by revealing, not concealing or disguising, Miss Debelack in an outpouring of pure stage light, but also in a series of photographic backdrops that seem startlingly three-dimensional.

Painful because it isn’t easy to sit in the theater and get called not only on your fat phobia, but your moral posturing as well. As demonstrated in the plays “The Shape of Things” and “The Mercy Seat” and also in the movie “In the Company of Men,” Mr. LaBute uses words like buckshot — his characters say things you’ve thought but never had the nerve to utter.

Nothing is taboo and there is no such thing as political correctness or hypersensitivity. His plays and movies outrageously take on moral issues and do not back off even when human behavior is at its most boorish and cruel. In Mr. LaBute’s world, we are most alive when we are at our worst.

With “Fat Pig,” he holds the cliches “love is blind” and “looks aren’t everything” to almost unbearable scrutiny. The love between Helen and Tom could use a little illusion, a blindfold that would make the rest of the world go away. Their relationship can only thrive in isolation, a fact that Helen rails against and Tom numbly accepts. In private, they sink into a wonderland of compatibility and sensual bliss.

In public, especially under the disgusted, ruthless gazes of Tom’s friends Carter (Jason Odell Williams) and Jeannie (Anne Bowles, devastating as an insecure and vengeful beauty), their love doesn’t stand a chance.

“Fat Pig” also tells us appearance is everything. We are judged by our looks and that goes for the model-thin Jeannie as much as for plus-sized Helen.

The men are also bound by surface beauty — Carter even evokes the laws of nature (“run with your own kind”) in a last-ditch effort to convince Tom there is plenty of time to compromise when you are in your flabby 40s, but that it is a waste of youth and muscle tone to do it in your 20s.

It would be easy to dismiss the people in “Fat Pig” as shallow, but Mr. LaBute is going for something riskier and more dangerous. Mr. LaBute seems to be saying that what we see holds us back. Carter — played by Mr. Williams as a supremely sardonic jerk who nonetheless is compulsively watchable — relates this story while admitting he could not even love his own mother because she was fat. What kind of son is that?

Although Mr. Pierce gives Tom a grace note of sensitivity in his searching portrayal of the character, he is at heart a nuanced and less aggressively obnoxious version of Carter. Tom sees Helen as reflected in the eyes of his friends and cannot stand — or stand up to —the sight.

And that is the tragedy of “Fat Pig.” It is not that a thin man cannot find happiness with a fat woman. Miss Debelack is so at ease in her skin, so sexy and comely and intelligent as Helen, you think, “what’s not to love?” It is that the man she sees before her is not half the man she thought he was. Tom may be handsome and have a lifeguard’s build, but he is not brave or heroic, or even very decent. He’s simply not “big” enough for Helen, in every sense of the word.

****

WHAT: “Fat Pig” by Neil LaBute

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb.12.

TICKETS: $32 to $52

PHONE: 202/332-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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