With a title like Fat Pig, you might expect a play about women's bodies and body anxiety — or, perhaps, societal anxiety over women's bodies. All of which form the blueprint for Neil LaBute's new drama, the second in a trilogy about gender, relationships, and the beauty myth. Yet Fat Pig (through December 6 at the Aurora Theatre) offers a surprising twist on the theme. It starts out predictably: Boy meets girl in pizza parlor. Girl wolfs down three pieces pizza, one salad, one spring water, one order of garlic bread, and one ice cream. Boy looks askance ("Pre-tty big."). Girl offers boy her second ice cream. Girl impresses boy with self-deprecating fat jokes and knowledge of obscure Alistair MacLean war movies. They exchange numbers. Then it veers in a different direction. Several scenes pass before you realize this is not about women at all. Rather, it's a play about men, men's insecurities, and men's relationships with other men.
Whether of not LaBute knew that is open for debate. His play sets you up with two principal characters whose romance produces the central drama of Fat Pig, but not the central conflict. The Aurora production — directed by Barbara Damashek — casts Liliane Klein as the eponymous fat girl Helen, a perky, smart, attractive, heavyset librarian who eats for every reason other than physical hunger. Like the fabled Helen of Troy, she seduces a man and creates a war. The man in question is Tom (Jud Williford), an upstanding office-worker type whose own self-doubt comes to bear in the first scene, when he hesitates before accepting Helen's ice cream. (Apparently, he seldom eats dessert without checking the nutrition label.) Tom is the type of guy who generally hews to societal expectations and peer pressure. He plays basketball at the Y on Friday nights; volleys insults with Carter, the office gadfly (Peter Ruocco); and tries to hide his romance from the watchful eyes of co-workers. Williford dons a sandy-haired wig for the part, which makes him resemble Richie Cunningham from Happy Days — a consummate conformist.
Ostensibly, Fat Pig tells the story of a closet relationship. Tom courts Helen in secret, sneaking her into movies after they've started, not picking her up from work, and refusing to introduce her to his friends. Long after their romance should have progressed, the two still speak awkwardly to each other, skirting around the issue of Helen's weight and describing their feelings in euphemisms. It's the kind of dynamic you might expect from an interracial couple, or a romance across social classes, or any other pairing that goes against the grain. In this case, it's difficult to trust Tom when he professes any kind of affection for Helen because you never see the evidence. Their love scenes always occur in isolation; the bed they share is a polar ice cap (Tom compares it to a lone raft in a great empty sea). It isn't until the penultimate scene that we get a glint of real chemistry, when Tom lies down on the couch clutching Helen's photograph.
But this isn't a play about Helen, or even Tom and Helen. It's about Tom and Carter. Played with terrific subtlety by Ruocco, Carter is a cipher — the guy who witnesses and comments on the action. Like the fashion rags arrayed on their office coffee table, or the magazine pinups on Helen's bedroom wall, Carter is supposed to represent societal views about beauty and the female body. He's the Iago in this story, jealously stalking Helen and Tom while they dine in a local seafood restaurant, then stealing Helen's picture and spreading it around the office. Along with Tom's ex-office-fling Jeannie (Alexandra Creighton), Carter provides a constant stream of fat-phobic comments to sabotage Tom and Helen's relationship. He's also an ambiguous moral compass. At one point, he tries to rationalize his fear of fat people with a story of childhood drama — that of a 350-pound mother who drove his father away. Carter chides his friend for dating a fat girl, but also characterizes Tom as a guy trying to do good in a world that won't allow it. Toward the end of the play Carter shifts from the frenemy role to become a kind of odd spiritual guide. In a moment of candor, he looks hard at Tom and says, "I know you'll do the right thing." On the surface, that sounds like a cliché. In this context, though, it's quite cryptic.
Carter is actually the strongest character in this play and the one who will steer Tom and Helen's relationship to its conclusion. Small clues in Mikiko Uesugi's set design, such as a floor painted to resemble a basketball court, show that this play is more a window into the private lives of men than the private lives of fat chicks. The actresses are strong, even if their characters seem one-dimensional. But it's the two guys, mean-spirited and frustrating as they are, who make all the decisions and propel the action forward. If there's any lesson to be gleaned here, it's that Tom couldn't do the right thing if he tried — too many forces are conspiring against him. So who's the real pig, anyway?
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