Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig has flown from one college campus to another since it was first produced in New York in late 2004. Now it has landed at the University of Rhode Island (through October 22) under the capable direction of Bryna Wortman.
WHEN TOM MEETS HELEN: Jessica Kody and Patrick Cullen.
LaBute has been known for his acerbic takes on modern society, particularly in the way that other pigs, sexist ones, look at and treat women. Like David Mamet, whose work he cites as a primary influence on his writing, LaBute has been alternately hailed as a protofeminist and, ahem, one of those pigs himself.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached this play about body image, society’s view of women’s bodies, and male biases against overweight women (the “fat pig” of the title). What the play made clear and what the actors did a great job of putting forth is that attitudes can only begin to shift if both men and women have the guts to change them.
From the opening scene, when Tom (Patrick D. Cullen) and Helen (Jessica H. Kody) strike up a conversation at a pizza parlor, it’s clear that she understands the courage and fortitude Tom’s going to need to be in a dating situation with her. She hasn’t yet met his gossipy, mean-spirited friends at the job, but she’s been coping with people’s reactions to her weight (she’s really not that heavy) since high school, when she stayed home watching Westerns and war movies with her dad and three brothers.
What Kody (and the playwright) deftly accomplish in Helen’s character is to show us both strength and vulnerability. On the surface, she says all the right things about accepting her own body, but she seems almost child-like in her “thank-yous” to Tom every time he compliments her laugh or her mouth or her kisses. Kody gets across how attractive she is to Tom (Alistair MacLean movies and all), how tough she’s had to be and how fragile she is when she falls for him.
For his part Cullen gives us a Tom who is genuinely in love with Helen — we don’t doubt that — but we quickly realize that as meagerly assertive as he is with his colleagues (the sniping Carter, played by Josh Short; and the catty Jeannie, played by Amanda R. Ruggiero), there’s not much hope that he’ll be able to stand up to the prying eyes of people outside Helen’s apartment. Cullen is, however, quite convincing about Tom’s sincerity, so the suspense of the play is held taut.
All four of the roles in Fat Pig are challenging to make real — including the jealous Jeannie, who didn’t quite snare Tom before he began to date Helen — but arguably the most difficult is that of Carter. Short must play him as a despicable sexist, a truly funny quick-quipping guy and, ultimately, as someone who needs to work out his own issues about growing up with a very overweight mom. The fact that we can’t write him off completely is more distressing than if we’d been able to stereotype him the way he does large women.