The Actor's Theatre of New Orleans recently celebrated its first anniversary and kicked off its second season with a production of Fat Pig
by Neil LaBute. While the run is over, the production is well worth mentioning for getting Actor's Theatre off to such a good start.
LaBute is known for comedies and dramas marked by people's petty cruelty and callousness to one another. He can't turn his back on an ill thought or mean streak and he clearly believes there's something telling about those fault lines. His stories are accessible to the point of complicity and he seems to want to agitate his audiences. LaBute made his debut with the low-budget movie In the Company of Men (1997), in which two men on a business trip to the same office set out to seduce and abandon a woman who works there. That she's partially deaf makes their crass sport even more disturbing. He followed up with Your Friends and Neighbors (1998), which featured the selfishness of people initiating affairs with their friend's spouses.
Fat Pig is an intimate construction of just four characters, in which Tom falls for supersized Helen, and tries to keep it from his co-workers Carter and Jeannie, who is not over a relationship with Tom that he has stealthily jettisoned. LaBute wastes no time in biting into the question of whether Tom, a not terribly interesting but decent-looking, successful guy, will get in a relationship with Helen, a witty and pleasant librarian who is fat, which in this small world clearly means undesirable. LaBute follows the premise that people seek similarly attractive partners and if one is willing to defy that norm, then one's friends will step in and act as the mating police. Call it peer pressure as social Darwinism.
In this production, the cast did a great job of keeping LaBute's signature banter crisp and funny. Cammie West had an excellent handle on the self-deprecating humor that is Helen's coping mechanism. Though she accepts herself, she pre-emptively deflects others' judgments, which also served as an ice-breaker with Tom. As Carter, Leon Contavesprie was also very funny as the guy who says everything that comes into his head, regardless of how politically incorrect or intrusive it is. While he's quintessentially the LaBute mechanism for airing out whatever cold assessments one could come up with, he's also the spokesman for the recurring LaBute notion that people make calculating yet predictable choices that belie whatever civilities they use to disguise or deny them. Carter doesn't pull any punches when he spills out his own confession about being embarrassed by his mother's obesity.
While LaBute revels in characters like Carter, this play doesn't rest on him being obnoxious. The contention is that most people hold these judgments and merely know not to espouse them. So what happens if you stage a play in which everybody actually says what they think? This one gets close, but it's not just about whether they have unkind things to say. The recently jilted Jeannie (Angela PapalŽ) makes this point clear as she seethes over Helen. Having wanted more from Tom herself, this prospect really gets under her skin as it forces her to reconsider if she is attractive. It makes her that much more vicious towards Helen, but it also refocuses the conflict. It's natural competition that fuels her actions, not merely an asocial personal flaw.
But Tom and Helen find something together. And in the tiny space at Actor's Theatre, the repercussions are especially palpable. There were painful silences in the dialogue that clearly made some audience members audibly uncomfortable on the night I saw it, a great compliment to the production's success.
There are two issues though. Can Tom and Helen make a relationship work? And can Tom stand up to any sort of social pressure. He clearly doesn't want to commit to anything. He ran from Jeannie when she wanted to know where their relationship was going. He doesn't want to own up to dating Helen when Carter finds out. And he has a very hard time telling Helen how he really feels. At some point, he can't just blame the ugliness on what others say. But the tensions are raw and compelling in spite of whether their relationship works.
In this production, Nick Thompson's Tom was conflicted and stymied far too often to let us believe the relationship could work. It's never clear that he hasn't gone along with things just because he has a hard time saying no to people. Or even yes. A scene of Tom and Helen in bed is staged so playfully that it seemed like Tom was not all there himself emotionally. He couldn't solicit her affection without laughing at the same time. The production would have been stronger if he were really trying to make it work, otherwise it's another cruel prank, like In the Company of Men.
Overall, however, embracing the play's cynicism is the cast's task. While LaBute's talent is flirting with the worst in people, this production brought out the best in Actor's Theatre. I hope they have some more heavyweight productions in store this fall.