Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's review of Suddenly Last Summer
A recent study from Indiana University reported that no matter what men say, when it comes to choosing a girlfriend, they make their choice based on the woman's physical attractiveness. The study also found that women are not only aware of this fact about male behavior, but know exactly where they register on the babe-o-meter and adjust their expectations accordingly. Women the world over issued a collective "Duh!" but felt vindicated that science confirmed what they already knew.
If you're not into reading scientific reports, you could acquire similar insights by attending a performance of Neil LaBute's 2004 play Fat Pig, performed by Hot City Theatre at the ArtLoft Theatre through September 22. The story concerns a romance between Tom, a conventionally attractive young man enjoying early success in the corporate world, and Helen, a librarian who is funny, self-confident and a long way from slender. In fact, she's passed the Rubenesque category and has settled in Camryn Manheim territory.
To his credit, the slender Tom is not put off by Helen's size; in fact, one thing he likes about her is that she doesn't share the weight obsession of his previous girlfriend and current coworker, Jeannine. His struggles have to do with enduring mockery from his co-workers, particularly his loud friend Carter who barely seems to have progressed - emotionally or intellectually - beyond junior high school. Tom is threatened by loss of status if he continues to date this plus-size woman, because to do so would demonstrate his disregard of the implicit value system in which women function as status symbols for men, and their women's value as status symbols is established primarily by their physical attractiveness.
This is an interesting insight by LaBute, a playwright best known for his depictions of human dishonesty and cruelty. If (speaking very broadly of course) some men want only one thing from a girl, could it be that the one thing they want is not sex but prestige? Certainly, there's nothing which raises a guy's standing in the competitive world of social status quite as efficiently as appearing in public with a desirable woman on his arm.
Of course, Tom's choice of a dating partner has nothing to do with his ability to do his job, but it has everything to do with his willingness to pledge allegiance to the values of the corporate world, which include prejudice against overweight women. And if you don't know which is more important, career-wise, I have a bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in buying.
Fat Pig focuses on the battle for Tom's soul: will he continue to pledge allegiance to his coworkers' shallow value system, or will he or follow his own better instincts at the price of lost status and diminished career prospects? You'll have to watch the play to learn the answer, but considering who the author is, you can probably guess how it works out.
The Hot City production of Fat Pig, directed by Marty Stanberry, gives a spirited production to LaBute's text. Unfortunately, the text itself is often lacking, particularly in the early scenes between Tom and Helen, which consist mainly of the inanities necessary to getting acquainted and working out a relationship. Yes, I know real life is often boring, but this is a play and we expect something more interesting for the price of our ticket.
Another disappointment is the shallow characterizations: despite some crackling LaBute dialogue, the characters, except for Helen, are all pretty much one-dimensional and appear to have been created more as mouthpieces for ideas which are necessary to create the play's conflict, rather than real fleshed-out characters. This is particularly true of Jeanne, who seems to have only two notes: bitchy and bitchier. Carter also has no depth: he's immature and annoying (if occasionally very funny) from first to last. Even Tom is largely a cipher, equally unaware of who he is and of how the world around him works: one wonders both what Helen sees in him, and how he got that nice window office in the first place. Unfortunately, because he is the central focus of the play's conflict, an insubstantial Tom makes for an unsatisfying evening of theatre.
These faults cannot be laid to Hot City's performance, however. David Finn creates an attractive and charming Tom who seems to genuinely value Helen's company and who defends her against his predatory co-workers. Liana Kopchak as Helen has the most to work with, and uses it to create the most interesting character in the play. She knows who she is and the kind of snap judgments people make about her, but continues to enjoy her life and look for substance in her relationships with other people. Nick Cutelli as Carter steals most of the scenes he is in, playing up his character's immaturity with great energy and fulfilling his role as the primary instigator of conflict. Melissa Rae Brown takes her role as Jeannie as far as she can; if that's not very far, the fault lies with the playwright rather than the actress. And I hope it won't be considered sexist or size-ist to note that she looks great in a bikini: the plot requires that she do so, and she does.
Otis Sweezey created an interesting modernistic set, consisting primarily of backdrops painted in abstract geometric patterns reminiscent of Robert Delaunay, with a few landmarks (the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty) thrown in to let us know the play is set in New York. Some of the sets rotate, and portable furniture is carried on and off to suggest the necessary locations, including two restaurants, Tom's office, and the beach.
Performances of Fat Pig will continue through September 22 by the Hot City Theatre at the ARtLoft Theatre, 1529 Washington Avenue. Ticket information is available from 314-289-4063 or www.hotcitytheatre.org.
Direction: Marty Stanberry