Shallow conventions of beauty sabotage love in depressingly funny comedy
If you’re looking to get lost in a light, romantic tale, don’t see Fat Pig, now playing at the Blue Room Theatre. It’s not your typical boy-meets-girl/they fall in love narrative (although both of those things do happen in the play). From the first scene—where we catch the chance meeting between Helen (Amy Brown) and Tom (Chris Briggs) in a cafeteria—until the very end, we’re reminded of one unavoidable factor that’s greatly affecting their ability to develop a relationship: Helen’s plus-size figure.
Erin Tarabini directs the Blue Room’s version of Neil LaBute’s dark comedy, which debuted off-Broadway in 2004. Relying on minimal props and set changes, the focus is on the dialogue in this love-and-hate story.
The two-act play takes us through the early stages of Helen and Tom’s relationship. Helen is a confident, sharp librarian whom Tom affectionately refers to as a “printed-word specialist.” Tom has an unnamed ho-hum office job that he shares with co-workers he doesn’t seem too crazy about (although they seem slightly crazy). Meeting Helen is the best thing to happen in his life, until he’s repeatedly told that he should “dump the fat chick.”
The script relies heavily on many conversations about Helen’s weight, whether it’s between Tom and Helen, or Tom and his shallow co-worker friends, Carter (Sean Constantine) and Jeannie (Cat Campbell), who happens to be Tom’s bitterly jealous ex. While the dialogue gets a little redundant at times (i.e., a lot of fat jokes), it’s also necessary to express the play’s theme of society’s obsession with physical appearance, and the powerful role it can play in relationships.
Constantine’s performance as Carter is perhaps the most impressive and also the most disturbing. As Tom’s work BFF, Carter’s essentially the little devil that sits on Tom’s shoulder, reminding him that he could (and should) do so much better than dating a “huge” girl. His monologues about how people should date their “own type” are both shocking and also, sadly, not. He represents the very real narcissistic, shallow way of thinking that permeates our culture. His character is the funniest as we laugh along with the ugly truths he spews, which only makes things slightly less depressing.
The only person in the story comfortable with Helen’s body is Helen. She jokes about her weight in a self-effacing manner, happily eating her pizza while the others are stuck on their boring salads. While her own confidence should be enough, it’s not, because the man she loves is constantly battling with his own insecurities about dating someone who isn’t conventionally beautiful. It’s heartbreaking but real, and Brown shines during scenes where she’s fighting to keep them together. She’s not the “crazy” girlfriend, she’s not over-the-top, she’s just genuinely trying to make their relationship work, and she plays it with sincerity.
When it’s just Tom and Helen, all we see is a love story, but Jeannie and Carter want us (and Tom) to believe they’re a freak show. Even Tom, a seemingly likeable guy, is conflicted by peer pressure and his own hang-ups. He initially leads Carter to believe Helen is a business client, not a girl he’s dating, and he continues to hide their relationship. Is it due to personal embarrassment, or to protect Helen from cruel comments? He wants to be good but can’t seem to shake the shallow inner demons.
In many ways, LaBute’s made Tom the most relatable character in the play, which is disconcerting but probably most realistic. Empathizing with him might be normal, but it doesn’t feel very good when the show’s over.