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In 'Fat Pig,' bearing extra girth is still the physical flaw that trumps any positive quality when it comes to romance

What is it with Neil LaBute and lousy, knucklehead guys? First came Adam in The Shape of Things, a mousy, apathetic college kid who couldn’t stand up for himself even in the face of his own demise. Now, in Fat Pig, comes Tom, another spineless sap — this time a monkey swinging on the vines of corporate culture — who can’t stand up for himself even when his own happiness is on the line. LaBute offers all of the grim implications of image-obsessed, immature, straight, white, male America, without suggesting any kind of gratifying diagnoses.

That’s not to say, however, that LaBute’s portraits are anything less than accurate, honestly assessing the attitudes and behaviors of men toward themselves, other men, and the women they pursue. But the similarities between the two plays don’t end with weak, pushover guys mired in sticky situations. It’s practically paint-by-numbers LaBute: both scripts employ exactly four characters, two women and two men, each with a pair of disapproving friends — the confident, macho best friend and the quasi-romantic interest willowing in the background. And in both plays smart, flawed women have something to prove as the central characters in stories of rocky relationships with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Bigger is better: Pierce and Debelack
(Photo by Carol Pratt)

Of course that obstacle in Fat Pig is our national obsession with size. When Tom meets Helen, a sweet, super-sized librarian with a refreshing sense of humor and an affinity for the truth, he’s instantly attracted to her bright personality and easygoing nature. But while it’s one thing to have a chance encounter in public, it’s another thing entirely to date a girl who wolfs down three slices of pizza, a salad and dessert during her lunch break.

And so Fat Pig concerns itself with the internal struggle between Tom and his nagging conscience, personified by a shallow work buddy who thinks any girl with hips is a greedy cow, and a scale-staring ex-girlfriend humiliated by her stout successor. But Tom is happy with Helen, he pleads. Tom doesn’t care if she’s overweight, he claims. And when he finally works up enough nerve to invite her to his company picnic at the beach, he is hit with a revelation bigger than his plump new girlfriend.

As deft as any of LaBute’s plays, and with language so lean it recalls the gritty dialogue of David Mamet or Kenneth Lonergan, Fat Pig mirrors pretty much every fat chick’s dating dilemmas (I speak from experience). Sure, you can be witty, intelligent, fun, and even attractive, but bearing extra girth is still the physical flaw that trumps any positive quality when it comes to romance.

”Big people are jolly, remember?” jokes Kate Debelack’s Helen, and without missing a beat, Tyler Pierce’s Tom cringes in response. It’s an easy rapport between the two that grows into something palpable in the hands of Debelack and Pierce, with Pierce bobbing and weaving his way through defensive excuses and moments of doubt. It takes an extra special guy to look past the purely superficial, and Pierce presents the whole psychology of Tom, rather than mere shards of his ego.

For Debelack, it’s a rare leading role for an actress who defies the cookie-cutter standards in an industry consumed by appearance. Debelack is charming and vulnerable, careful not to submit a sentimental performance wrought with emotion and self-indulgence. Instead, her plucky Helen is genuine and gentle, unfettered by the stereotypes the script supports and empowered by a character that attempts to negotiate compassion against pity.

Director Paul Mullins couldn’t ask for more vivid performances from his supporting cast. Both Jason Odell Williams and Anne Bowles are spectacular as the requisite jerk and the prissy office bitch in killer shoes. Debra Booth’s set is a mostly bare canvas upon which the action unfolds, but Neil McFadden’s music often feels intrusive and overbearing.

The artistic success of any production is measured in part by the reactions it garners from its audience. It’s telling when an audience is so affected by the action onstage that the result is audible groaning and uncomfortable squirming — such as whenever Helen is kissing and snuggling in bed with Tom, or when she appears on stage in a swimsuit. LaBute challenges his audiences to consider that beauty is never truly in the eyes of the beholder, and while Studio’s polished production is intriguing and always entertaining, it also leaves you questioning who the real swine may be.

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