When Neil LaBute is doing his job, people squirm. Ten years have passed since we saw his triptych, Bash: Latter-Day Plays, at Raleigh Ensemble Players. Those searing one-acts served notice of a classically influenced playwright obsessed with the machinations of transgression, damage and redress.
LaBute is a strange sort of moralist. He's interested in analyzing the evil isn't usually acknowledged, whether it shows up in the commonplace or in the mirror. His characters are everyday people, caught up in the throes of murder, lies, misogyny and racism, among other sins. They're like us—indeed, a bit too much so. So we squirm.
In one sense, the repellant title says it all. FAT PIG deals with how easily a culture preoccupied with appearance dehumanizes and isolates those who don't meet its standards of beauty. Chilling, barnyard terms like the title not only illustrate just how less-than-human the overweight are regarded. They also identify them as prey: creatures to be fed upon, ironically enough, in our discourse.
After sharing a table in a packed café over lunch, Helen, a librarian, and Tom, a corporate drone, fall for one another. The prospect fills Tom's co-workers, Carter and Jeannie, with a mixture of schadenfreude and horror, due to Helen's plus-size physical dimensions—and Tom's apparently previously established identity as a human doormat.
In LaBute's script, Carter's mischievous man-child morphs into something much darker as he mocks, then openly ridicules, Tom and Helen's relationship. Jeannie, who was once involved with Tom, displays the emotional reserve of a honey badger. The co-workers form a waspish tag team, bulldozing over boundaries that Tom takes few steps to defend, to the audience's ever-increasing discomfort.
Given the unused expanses of FATE's converted mercantile space, it's puzzling that Leslie Pless' set is so cramped that its various locales have to be repacked into the three closets at the back of the same platform at the end of each scene. Just as puzzling: why Tom's office looks out on a nighttime city skyline, while characters are busy wishing each other good morning.
Young director Stacy Whitley achieves mixed results with a cast of mixed abilities—hardly a recent development in FATE's checkered past. Julya Mirro delivers a triumphant performance as the fetching and confident Helen. As Tom, Allan Maule sometimes transcends the stiffness we have noted in his previous work on the regional stage, while at other times, Whitley and Maule attempt to incorporate that trait into a character who sometimes should be stiff. Noelle Barnard hits rewarding and humorous notes as the scorned Jeannie, a girl so shallow that she takes Tom's rejection as a brand crisis, while Wyatt Geist warmed to the role of the unrepentant Carter.
LaBute's characters do not play nice. They repeatedly foil what we'd wish them to do, say or mean, both in themselves and with one another. Fat Pig is, therefore, a frustrating play that lacks some of the character-driven intricacies of LaBute's best work. But, judging by audience responses Friday night, this comparatively straightforward opus still left assorted couples with plenty to talk about on the ride home.