When a Man Loves an Oinker

GableStage exists mostly to make people squirm. In the past three years, it's presented us with goat fuckers, chicken fuckers, child murderers, and drug-addicted, child-molesting judges. Somehow, GableStage has made these subjects — which should be grim, numbing, and distancing — funny, poignant, and immediate. Now the company's producing artistic director, Joe Adler, brings us Fat Pig, a play so rude that I was tempted to word this sentence, "Now, Joe Adler is bringing home the bacon."

Boo hiss, right? But that's the kind of ugly, thoughtless honesty that Neil LaBute's Fat Pig is searching for. Whether you think it has succeeded or not probably depends on (1) how fat you are, (2) how big an asshole you are, and (3) whether your friends are equally big assholes. Superficially, the question asked by Fat Pig is this: If you are a successful young businessman and you find yourself falling in love with a pretty, witty, engaging girl who just happens to be 80 pounds overweight, do you break up with her when your friends start making fat jokes?

That's the dilemma faced by Pig's protagonist, Tom (Jim Ballard). He met his paramour, Helen (Margot Moreland), while she was scarfing down pizza by the handful at a cafeteria. The two quickly bonded — Tom digs Helen's sense of humor (except when it's self-effacing, which is often) and taste in film; Helen digs Tom's who-knows-what (because, honestly, he's kind of a douche). Trouble arises when the skinny chick that Tom's been casually dating (Jeannie, played by Aubrey Shavonn) realizes she's being replaced and who she's being replaced by. It's nothing serious — she just gets barkingly vituperative — but Tom's ego is crushed. The situation is worsened by the fratboy wit of Tom's motor-mouthed coworker Carter (Brandon Morris), who never misses an opportunity to insult, publicly humiliate, and otherwise abuse everybody in his immediate vicinity.

If you're an audience member, the solution is obvious: Jesus, Tom, forget these people and go live happily ever after with Helen. Jeannie and Carter are terrible friends, you don't even like them that much, and they certainly don't have your best interests at heart. In fact, Tom, these people suck. They're vile, soulless bastards, and Helen is very likely the best thing to happen to you in your entire mealy-mouthed, weak-fisted life. Go to her, Tom. Eat well, live long, and prosper.

This isn't what happens, which bugs me to no end. Neil LaBute's usual philosophy of playwriting is something like this: Sure, audience, maybe you don't actually say the things I write or do the things I write about, but underneath all your smooth, polished surfaces, this is who you are! You'll find this part of LaBute's ethic at work in The Shape of Things, which hints that all relationships are steely, essentially heartless social transactions; and in Bash and In the Company of Men, which hint that apparently ordinary people are capable of monstrous acts. It's a decent notion, and ordinarily I wouldn't mind. What LaBute's after is "art as self-evaluation" — and subsequently, if we're lucky, "art as exorcism." Sure, the idea is old-hat, but Neil's a good enough writer and an incisive enough thinker to pull it off. That is, if — and it's a big if — he's taking aim at real-world targets.

But I ask you, dear reader: If you happened to fall in love with a fat person — if you were happy with this person, if you felt totally comfortable with this person, if you knew, deep down in your spleen, that this person was totally right for you — how would your friends react? Would they snipe? Would they be relentlessly cruel? And furthermore, if some of your acquaintances did for some reason behave in this terrible manner, would you end your romance because of it?

No. Absolutely not. Hardly anybody would. And if you are such a person, guess what? You, mon frère, are an asshole. Your friends are assholes. Everybody knows you're an asshole. You certainly don't need Neil LaBute telling you — I'll tell you. Query a few random people at the mall: They'll tell you. And since you're such a massive, irredeemable asshole, what are you doing at the theater in the first place? Art appreciation is not meant for people like you. Go rape and pillage something.

The problem isn't that people will reject something they're passionate about in the name of conformity, as LaBute suggests in Fat Pig. I submit that, when you're really, honest-to-God passionate about something, you're physically incapable of rejecting it. You fiend after it. As Percy Sledge once asserted, a man who loves a woman "can't keep his mind on nothing else," and he will, in fact, "trade the world for the good thing he's found."

Right you are, Percy. The problem with obesity, vis-à-vis love, is that people refuse to fall in love with fat folks in the first place. This might have to do with societal pressure; it might have to do with cultural standards of beauty shaping our turn-ons and turn-offs when we're tots. Whatever the cause, a whole lot of people refuse to even consider fat folks as sexual objects. You may be one of those people: If so, shame on you, but you're not abnormal. What is abnormal is getting into a fulfilling relationship with a special portly someone and then aborting the affair because of one too many Twinkie jokes around the water cooler. If you do that, you're a spineless mutant, and I've never met anybody quite like you.

But Fat Pig would like you to believe that such folks are everywhere — that this is the norm, not some aberration. It's extremely easy to like this play, because virtually everybody watching it will find themselves on the side of righteousness; you'd have to dig through a lot of refuse before you found somebody who resembles Fat Pig's conformity-obsessed straw-man.

Margot Moreland's Helen is beautiful, endlessly sympathetic, funny, vulnerable — all kinds of good things. Maybe she's fat, but she's certainly no pig — not like the other three characters, who are pigs from snouts to squiggly tails. If LaBute's script had called for Helen to be ugly or stupid or even helplessly antisocial, then we'd have something to get hot and bothered about. Then Helen wouldn't be so sympathetic, and we'd be able to see some of ourselves in Tom's shame, Carter's callousness, or Jeannie's vitriol. As it is, Helen is merely large, and we are allowed to feel noble for loving her. Which is to say, although none of us is innocent, LaBute is willing to let us leave the theater feeling like we are.

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Brandon K. Thorp