Fat Pig Raises Familiar Question: Are LaBute’s Men Interesting?

Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig is basically about a fat girl, Helen, and an attractive young man, Tom, who fall in love and it all ends in tears.

Seriously overweight girls are socially unacceptable. And so, I’m told, are even marginally overweight girls. What a world, eh? Fat slobs who are men are O.K., but let a woman enjoy an extra slice of pizza or two and it’s over. But Mr. LaBute, whose plays are notorious for tackling unpleasant themes often involving vile chauvinistic men, reveals a gentler, kinder touch here. He’s grown horribly sentimental.

Helen and Tom are both left crying on the beach at the end. They’re at an office beach party, of all things, and Tom is hiding Helen in her bathing costume from his friends, who are all extremely thin. Eventually, Tom tells the stricken Helen, “I think you are an amazing woman, I honestly do. I really love what we have here,” but he cravenly caves into peer pressure and ends the relationship. At the close, he’s in tears for his own shallowness, and poor, sweet, overweight Helen is in tears because, well, wouldn’t you be?

Mr. LaBute has written his first soap opera. What surprised me most about the play, however, is that absolutely nothing about it surprised me. I must in fairness add that my colleagues have mostly raved about the short, 80-minute Fat Pig and that Jo Bonney’s excellent production has been extended at the Lucille Lortel Theatre downtown. If you can’t get in, you can always try Hairspray.

Hairspray is Fat Pig with a happy end. In the Broadway musical, the fat girl becomes the prom queen, of course, and she gets the boy because when all’s said and done and eaten, Beauty Is Within. The adorable, original star of Hairspray, the extremely large and short Marissa Jaret Winokur, who won a Tony, went on to star in a TV special I thoroughly enjoyed about an adorable, extremely large and short woman who becomes a beauty queen and gets the boy because Beauty Is Within.

In his way, Mr. LaBute is sending us exactly the same hackneyed message. But he’s dressed his play up in pseudo-hipness. The restaurant where Tom meets Helen is trendy; the music between the short scenes is hot; Tom and his office co-workers are cool executives types, though what they do isn’t stated. (They put things in files and bicker a lot about fat versus thin). But the play itself could easily be a TV drama of the week.

It already is. In Rescue Me on FX, the fireman falls in love with a fat girl-coincidentally played by Ashlie Atkinson, who also plays the fat girl in Fat Pig-only to be teased mercilessly by the guys whose jibes disturb him. We’ll have to wait to find out whether he stands by his chubby love. Don’t bet on it.

I’d almost forgotten about the masterpiece Shallow Hal, in which Gwyneth Paltrow wore a fat suit. But Jack Black was put under some kind of spell which enabled him to see her as thin. Under the layers of fat, he could see the inner Gwyneth Paltrow.

On balance, I don’t think Mr. LaBute is onto anything new with Fat Pig. A serious flaw in the play for me was that I didn’t see his reviled heroine as fat, but delightful. As played with such utter naturalness and nuance by the gifted Ms. Atkinson, Helen isn’t “overweight,” but human. I honestly couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.

For example, before the play begins, we see Helen munching on a pizza in a crowded restaurant. She’s a librarian and she’s eating lunch at a counter. It isn’t easy to eat in front of an audience. Actors always act eating too much. But Ms. Atkinson doesn’t. Anyway, there she is-and so what? The indulgent pre-play scene goes on for about 10 minutes, which is an awfully long time to watch anyone eat. But we’re obviously meant to see the girl who’s quietly enjoying her pizza and salad as some kind of freak or specimen of nature, as if studying a strange, unsettling species held up to the light. She looked like a pretty average girl enjoying lunch to me.

There you are! Beauty Is In The Eye of the Beholder. But hasn’t someone or other said that before? The central problem with Mr. LaBute’s Fat Pig is that its message and dilemma could have been timely issues in Cosmopolitan magazine 20 or 30 years ago. The vernacular would have been different, that’s all.

Dear Cosmo,

I am a plus-size girl who has just met a great guy but I can’t be sure if he’s really serious. He says he’s in love with me, but you know what men are like. I’m about 230 or 240 pounds. But it shouldn’t make any difference. I have confidence in myself. Well, sort of. I look terrific in the dark. You see? I have a sense of humor! If I were thin, I’d still be jolly! But I can’t prove it. It’s just my nature, I guess. I have like total faith in this guy. I’m floating on a cloud. This could be so great. I know it could. What do you advise?

Yours ever so sincerely,

Helen

Dear Helen,

Have you thought of going on a diet? Just kidding! If he loves you as much as he says, being fat shouldn’t be a problem, at least to begin with. Don’t rush things.

Dear Cosmo,

I have recently fallen in love with a girl who looks like Mama Cass. I mean, like, you know. Whatever. I’m not embarrassed about it. I dunno. Maybe I am. I mean, WOW. I’ve never felt this way before about anyone, ever. Except for Mom, of course. Let’s not go there! This girl seems like a really interesting person. She likes old war movies. She has a great laugh. We’ve really clicked. She’s fat, though. But I don’t think it should make any difference, you know?

Yours faithfully,

Tom

Dear Tom,

How old are you? Are you 12?

Dear Cosmo,

Cool! I’m nearly 30 years old. You were joking, right? I’m really in love with this fat girl. Well, as much as anyone can say they’re in love. I mean, when it comes right down to it, what’s love? The trouble is, everyone at the office thinks I’m weird. My friend Carter keeps making jokes about sumo wrestlers. What a shithead! And my ex-girlfriend, Jeannie, who works in accounts, can’t believe it either. She’s gorgeous and thin and you should see her in a bikini! What am I to do? I guess it’s all getting to me.

Yours faithfully,

Tom

Dear Tom,

Your fellow workers are victims of societal pressures to conform to conventional standards of beauty propagated by an image-obsessed culture. True love is what counts. Remember that Beauty Is Within and it ain’t over till the fat lady sings.

Dear Cosmo,

Things haven’t been working out as great as they might with the weight issue. But here’s hopin’! The problem is my boyfriend won’t introduce me to any of his friends at the office. I don’t think he’s ashamed of me, but the other night we went out for sushi and he hid me under a blanket. I kept losing my chopsticks. It’s something to work on, right? I know he means well. What should I do?

Yours ever so sincerely,

Helen

Dear Helen,

Leave him immediately.

Dear Cosmo,

I am the dude referred to as a shithead in the recent correspondence and I would just like you all to know that as a Neil LaBute male stereotype, I’m entitled to be a total asshole whenever I want.

Yours,

Carter

Dear Cosmo,

I am the incredibly gorgeous ex-girlfriend referred to in your recent correspondence with fatso and I don’t need this, I really don’t need this. In the first place, I resent being a Neil LaBute female stereotype who represents spoilt, brainless beauty. As for my ex, I hope he’s happy with Elephant Girl, I really do. I mean, fuck him! You know? Excuse my language. Fuck him!

All best,

Jeannie

Dear Cosmo,

I know I should have taken your advice, but I thought there was a chance, I really did. I went to a beach party with Tom and he finished with me in the sweetest, spineless sort of way and we both cried our eyes out and the audience loved it.

Yours ever so sincerely,

Helen

Dear Cosmo,

I have been following the recent correspondence and I found it all riveting.

Keep up the good work!

Neil LaBute