James and I went to see Fat Pig on Jan. 19. Neil Labute's newest play had premiered in NYC on Nov. 17, 2004, and as In the Company of Men is one of my favorite movies (to admit to liking it is repugnant to some people, especially those who consider the movie and Labute to be misogynist, but I enjoy professing my love for that movie the way I imagine certain Americans enjoy telling others that they like to take their coffee black, and strong; and I don't consider Labute misogynist, though I'm not sure I'd want him dating one of my sisters), I couldn't resist grabbing tickets to a premiere of his latest work. James is a huge Jeremy Piven fan, so I was hoping we'd catch him in the lead role as Tom, but Piven departed in early January to complete work on season two of Entourage.
Jo Bonney directed this production, and it showed at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the Village. The premise of the play is simple: Tom falls for an extremely overweight woman named Helen. Does he have the courage to not just admit his new relationship but continue it in the face of the merciless scrutiny of his shallow coworkers Carter and Jeannie (also his ex-girlfriend)?
Fat Pig is more watchable than most Labute work (its run has been extended through Feb. 26). The dialogue is straightforward, and despite one's best intentions, it's difficult not to laugh at some of Carter and Jeannie's crass pronouncements about Tom and Helen. In doing so, you understand Tom's struggle. We all have prejudices we wish we wish we could shed, and our slavish devotion to conventional ideals of beauty is one of the strongest. Most of us can't summon the courage to oppose this socially accepted norm, but we pull for Tom to find it in himself to stand up for not only Helen but himself.
Steven Pasquale (currently starring on FX's series "Rescue Me") replaces Jeremy Piven as Tom and manages to evoke the requisite sympathy for a man who is perhaps too weak to be a protagonist. Andrew McCarthy plays Carter with a mannered sliminess; Labute's villainous men are not just chauvinists and misogynists but brazenly so. When McCarthy came on stage to take a bow after the play was over, he still wore an expression on his face as if to say, "My god I was fantastic out there tonight." I couldn't help wonder what Aaron Eckhart would have done with the part. Ashlie Atkinson, also from "Rescue Me," offers a brave and honest Helen who deserves the courage that Tom tries to summon. Jessica Capshaw, of "The Practice," plays Jeannie. Keri Russell played the part of Jeannie up until recently, and I would have enjoyed seeing her in that role if only because it goes so much against type for the former "Felicity" star.
I struggled with the idea that Tom would be friends with Carter and Jeannie given how purely repulsive both of them are, and what are the roots of their shallow attitudes? Is it a product of a Darwinian workplace or just so common a human trait as to be an archetype? The play doesn't reveal much. Still, if that aspect of the play feels sparse, it also contributes to the fable-like quality of Labute's work.
By play's end, the title takes on new meaning. The "fat" refers to Helen, and the "pig" to Carter, but both of them have the courage of their own convictions in a way that Tom may never have.
The introduction to the opening scene of Fat Pig:
A woman in a crowded restaurant, standing at one of those tall tables. A bunch of food in front of her, and she is quietly eating it. By the way, she's a plus size. Very.