Tuesday, May 6, 2014

“Fat Pig” is a Safe but Fair Revival at the Hudson Mainstage by M.R. Hunter

There's been an uptick in revivals for Neil LaBute's plays what with last year's L.A. Theatre Works' staging of "Reasons to Be Pretty" followed by the sequel "Reasons to Be Happy." "Fat Pig" now playing at the Hudson is a slightly tweaked version from its 2007 Los Angeles premiere at the Geffen Playhouse but in the intimate space the play still holds up, edited or not, and typifies the playwright's keen if not brutal insight into current sociological attitudes and conflicting mores.

The interest in LaBute most likely stems from his appalling yet accurate portrayal of Gen X'ers trying to maintain an uneasy balance between vapidity and a modern-age pragmatism that circumvents attachment and feeling in the quest for personal freedom, happiness or simply gain. Unlike some of his other works which takes an almost cynical tone amid a sparring showdown, "Fat Pig" is at its heart a tender love story wrought by outside influences and societal judgment.

True love is rarely easy and even less so when one partner suffers a visible stigma in our superficial society of beauty and its correlation with success, namely being overweight. This touchy subject is handled with frankness, wit and sensuality by LaBute's sharp rendering hand. Tom, an attractive corporate executive finds himself charmed by the vivacious Helen whose zeal for life and food ignites his curiosity and attraction. Unlike his previous girlfriends, Helen's self-deprecating humor, intelligence and light-hearted flirting is a welcome change of pace from the shallow, immature and petulant women in Tom's revolving harem. A connection is formed between this unlikely pair but the budding romance is cut short by embarrassment, shame and frustration on Tom's part as Helen senses his increasing discomfort and denial. She implores him from the outset, "Just be honest with me," and plea shared with co-worker and office tryst on-and-off lover Jeannie. Tom cannot be honest with himself let alone the women in his life.

Aggravating matters further is Tom's narcissistic but straight-shooter colleague and bromance buddy, Carter, who views women as merely sex objects, openly opposing Tom's affair with a Rubenesque figured female. Tom runs hot and cold, he plays the victim and the martyr, waffles between Helen's affections and his colleagues' humiliations, and in the end, he does what he has to…for him. Love in this play cannot come at too dear a price. It cannot cost Tom his own professional and personal standing so he makes a hard but painful decision when the object of his affection is too big a pink elephant in the room to ignore. At the heart of this play, LaBute layers the conflicts of selfishness, ego and uneasy acquiescence to the herd mentality. The "fat pig" isn't Helen, but the piggish attitudes thwarting real love for the proverbial "grass is greener" mentality.

This is a play to see for those who are willing to walk away with more compassion than when they first took their seats. "Fat Pig" is extremely smart, bone-chillingly honest, heartening and an excellent reflection on the times we live in. LaBute has a startling way of infusing despicable characters an ounce of nobility and wisdom, especially through Carter in this play. No one is purely good or bad which is why LaBute is probably one of the most important contemporary playwrights as he does not neatly tie his plots up into a tight little bow, but leaves situations unexplored, undone or even unfulfilled—a risk many writers are unable to make on the stage.

For the play itself, this is a worthy production with a capable but uneven cast mostly due to the lack of direction by Alexis Jacknow (associate director for LATW's "Reasons to Be Happy"). Jacknow's clumsy if not wildly blind staging leaves much to be desired in its safe choices and inability to rein her cast in or pull more out from them. Small but annoying distractions such as too many inexplicable physical movements, i.e. hand slapping on thighs and nervous hair futzing takes too much attention away from the action. These aren't choices made by the actors but simply lazy acting, unconscious nerves and lack of control on the ensemble and the director.

One actor in particular shines throughout, Nick Stabile, recently starring in "The Trip Back Down" gives Carter a fully explored character pivoting with ease between assclown and realist. His charm and good looks infects the role with greater believability and his harrowing moment of self-reflection towards the play's end lends itself a certain amount of understandable sympathy. Unlike the rest of the cast, Stabile intuits LaBute's multilayered depiction and reveals it totally.

Jonathan Bray as Tom is likable, naturalistic and finds moments to show his angst but it is fleeting under Jacknow's loose handling. Bray does well holding his own until Stabile outshines him in their scenes which can be excused up to a point but eventually takes the whole mile. Deidra Edwards skims the surface of Helen rather than burrowing deeper to the character's wounded core. While charming, she gives a serviceable performance stunted by a lack of spontaneity in her recitation. Kirsten Kollender as Tom's former girl of the hour has plenty of opportunities in LaBute's script to offer more than a shrewish, hysterical, whiny, embittered ex-flame, but keeps harping on the same note over and over, ad nauseam. Unlike the other characters, Kollender does not provide the same arc but plays her role to be in such contrast to Helen's easygoing nature as to be a caricature. It's a shame too as Jeannie has brilliant epiphanies that on closer examination, could be thoroughly explored.

LaBute requires a dexterous approach and sensitivity to nuance and playing counter to what is so easily said but underneath the dialogue are deeper, counterintuitive and loaded meanings. It takes great skill and understanding to approach his work and bring these qualities to life in a way that illuminates the conflicts clearly. The audience is starved for the catharsis but unlike the penetrating big "O" of the moment, LaBute subtly spirals in this play with each character having their personal revelation up to the climax being fulfilled in a blistering moment of open rejection. Here, only Carter reaches the apex of self-examination with everyone else trotting down their path as if determined by circumstance rather than influenced by choice—the ultimate paradox so entrenched in LaBute plays. Playing against the stream leaves more tension than playing to the current which winds up feeling stale, predictable and boring. It's odd then for Jacknow who worked with the playwright to miss the intricate underpinnings of his signature stylizations.   

Falling in the nether region between excellent and good, this is a slightly above average attempt at a play deserving of a knockout. There's a lot here but not quite enough to push the play to the depths or the very edge of its potential. Playing it safe is the antithesis of "Fat Pig" because the subject alone is not only topical and scarily true, but love is anything but playing it safe. The high stakes in this staging fall short of what is always on the table even as we choose to refuse it.

"Fat Pig"
Runs through June 1
Fri & Sat @ 8 p.m.
Sundays @ 7 p.m.
Hudson Mainstage Theater

6539 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Tickets: $30
(323) 960-7788

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