Pig. Heifer. Whale. The slurs familiar to the overweight share a crucial premise: If you're fat, you're less than human.
Playwright Neil LaBute fires back shots of his own at our image-obsessed culture in his beauty plays, a treatise-in-triptych: The Shape of Things, Reasons to Be Pretty and Fat Pig.
Fat Pig is as brutal and direct as LaBute's title suggests, and the Living Room's production highlights that brutality with innovative staging and evocative performances. The cabaret-style seating crowds you around the small set, at diner-issue high-top tables. The opening scene plays out in a crowded restaurant; the audience supplies the ambience.
As the houselights fade, we witness a giddy scene: Helen ("of Troy," one character suggests, Greek tragedy in mind), a plus-sized librarian, and Tom, an attractive and affable professional, meet cute. Tom is quickly infatuated, falling for Helen's lilting laugh and genuine, self-deprecating humor. Helen is unashamed of her weight, a cardinal sin in a world that fetishizes slimness. "I'm pretty all-right with who I am now," she admits. "The trick is getting other people to be OK with it."
Director Bryan Moses teases outstanding performances from the show's small cast. As Helen, Kenzie West introduces us to a smarter, savvier breed of ingénue. She gives Helen a Miss Honey sweetness, with a rich, resonant voice that underscores the character's truth telling: "I don't really have much time for fiction," she tells Tom about her reading tastes, and we sense the warning underneath.
LaBute paints Tom as an empathetic Everyman struggling to keep his footing while societal pressures and beauty ideals duke it out with his growing attraction to Helen. Bob Linebarger makes the character clumsy and gentle, amping up the awkwardness of Tom's earnest courting to Michael Cera levels while swimming in a series of baggy suits.
As Jeannie, Tom's strident co-worker and onetime lover, Liz Golson brings surprising nuance to one of LaBute's least likable roles. She masters Jeannie's hairpin turns from cool comedienne to crazed ex, infusing the play's Skinny Bitch with complexity and compassion. When she finally sees Tom's "fat cow" of a new girlfriend, her humiliation is palpable, like heat coming off a road. Hell hath no fury like a svelte woman scorned.
Matthew James McAndrews is phenomenal as Carter, Tom's shallow work buddy. He chews the fat and shoots Nerf basketball with the smooth confidence of a pickup artist, feigning curiosity as he wonders aloud whether Jeannie's ass is getting flabby. (It isn't.) We've all met guys like him before, but rarely do we get to peek under the hood. McAndrews commits so fully and unapologetically to the role that Carter's philosophy can't help but prick the corners of our noblest aspirations.
It nags at Tom, too: "I don't even get why I like you," he lashes out, after Carter plasters a photo of Helen across the office for ridicule. "Because you're like me," Carter retorts. He's not really wrong.
Each of LaBute's beauty plays requires multiple settings and scene changes, and Fat Pig is no exception. Moses and the Living Room turn to promenade theater for a solution, moving the audience to a new stage space at the end of each scene. It feels a little like a progressive dinner party, one that reconfigures the space's feel with each new course.
What that choice wins in novelty and variety, however, it sacrifices in momentum. No matter how efficiently the crew shepherds us, the time spent on travel and crowd control saps cumulative drive from the play, preventing us from fully absorbing the impact of each beer-gut-twisting scene.
The technical elements themselves are handled simply and effectively. Lighting designer John "Moose" Kimball does an admirable job handling multiple plots, and Joseph Concha's sound design gives us a series of amusingly unforgivable musical puns ("Skinny Love" and Sarah McLachlan's "Ice Cream," among others).
The music factors into the finale, too, as LaBute turns to the emotional engine of any tragedy, catharis, with stage directions that require both characters to end the show in "big, rolling tears." Yet it's hard to feel the couple's pain acutely in the face of a script that treats its characters with cruelty and contrived cynicism. To the extent that LaBute has written a tragedy, he has at least given Tom a fatal flaw: his unwillingness to stand up to others' scorn. Fate, cloaked here as human nature, is inescapable. Fat might as well be, too.