Neil LaBute's work The Shape of Things, Bash, In the Company of Men has a well-deserved reputation for being provocative and unsettling; it's good to know that going in. Fat Pig, however, delivers such a visceral impact that even typing out the name causes bile to rise in the back of my throat. A performance of HotCity Theatre's current production yielded aftershocks well into the evening not to mention musings on the politics of beauty, the nature of victimization and the uncomfortable truth that there's no more brutal snob than the one who lives behind your own eyes.
That, friends, is good theater.
Much credit is due to Liana Kopchak, who plays the titular character, Helen. In the play's first twenty minutes, Kopchak is the very picture of ebullience, giggling unself-consciously and flashing a beautiful smile as she bluntly details the crime of being a fat person in a weight-obsessed society. Kopchak imbues the plus-size librarian with a self-deprecating humor that barely shields a vulnerable woman. Tom (David Finn), a handsome man who's visibly distressed at Helen's frequent fat jokes, can't help but be charmed by her; she's bright and funny and they share a fondness for old war movies and a good meal. Only when he delivers a riposte in the form of a lame-but-sweet Helen of Troy joke does a self-conscious grimace cross Helen's face. Over the course of the evening, that look will appear with more frequency and greater sadness, until it becomes the rule rather than the exception.
Helen's attraction to Tom seems predicated on his good looks, as that's seemingly all he has going for him. But despite her concerns about whether their relationship can last, they begin dating. Turns out Helen is right to worry. As soon as they get wind of the relationship Tom's office friend Carter (Nick Cutelli) and his on-again, off-again girlfriend Jeannie (Melissa Rae Brown) commence mocking the fat woman and Tom for being with her. Brown plays Jeannie with a flinty, self-involved neediness that blossoms into spectacularly venal cruelty. Carter, by contrast, is a magnificently enjoyable prick. Cutelli concocts a piquant blend of smarm and charm (schmarm?) that generates huge laughs even as he spews toxic waste.
Carter revels in his own meanness, referring to himself as "Dr. Asshole." By play's end it's disquieting to realize just how good a diagnostician the doctor truly is. Not so Tom. Though he admits he's "wussy" and "shallow" and mutely accepts Jeannie's accusation that he's a "little boy in big boy clothing," Tom is blind to what such traits imply about his future. Contending that Helen's physical unattractiveness makes Tom look bad, Carter lays it on the table when he tells his friend, "I'm not talking about what people deserve. I'm talking about what they get." This being LaBute, what we're going to get is more torment, and more truth.
Though director Martin Stanberry maintains a crisp pace and a clean, natural flow to the language and the action, Fat Pig's denouement is a leap off a cliff you didn't see coming.
During a conversation with Tom about their shared passion for war movies, Helen conflates the Kirk Douglas Western Lonely Are the Brave and the Frank Sinatra war picture None But the Brave. That's no accident. The word brave is tossed around several times in reference to Tom: Is he brave enough to weather society's approbation? Brave enough to make a commitment? Brave enough to face up to who's really behind his callow façade? But when the lights come up, you're liable to walk out of the theater unsure whether bravery's anything to brag about. It's lonely and none that matter.