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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Warm and Tasty Fat Pig at 12 Miles West

Also see Bob's review of Godspell

Fat Pig
Amanda Jornov and Marc Donovan
Its title notwithstanding, Neil LaBute's Fat Pig proves to be an exceptionally warm and sensitive exploration of the heartbreak and unhappiness that results from our society's obsession with physical beauty, and its judgmental attitude toward those whose appearance violates its arbitrary standard.

LaBute is a 43-year-old playwright and filmmaker (writer-director) who I am convinced is surely one of America's finest young playwrights. He is best known for his 1997 breakthrough hit film In the Company of Men in which two men date an attractive, needy deaf girl intending to simultaneously dump her in order to cause her severe emotional grief. It is a corrosive satire on the selfishness and cruelty bred by the cut throat attitudes, values and behaviors which engender competitive success in corporate settings. It is seen by some as being misogynistic for reveling in its protagonists' cruel actions. However, it is likely that their conduct is made so reprehensible in order to viscerally repel viewers, rendering any words of condemnation unnecessary. The Mormon, Brigham Young educated LaBute makes it clear in Fat Pig that he is a sensitive fellow with a full measure of heartfelt moral indignation.

In Fat Pig, a companion piece to the Company film, LaBute makes his distaste for American corporate and commercial values abundantly clear. The situation and plot are basic and simple, actually the stuff of all too many shrill, juvenile and unfeeling films and television comedy episodes. Guy meets extremely obese girl. He finds that they have much in common, and he falls in love with her. As surely as night follows day, her appearance will be ridiculed by his friends and associates. However, in short order, it is clear that we are operating on a higher, more incisive and satisfying, and infinitely more painful level than the plot summary might convey. There is a witty tone to the structure and dialogue that gives Fat Pig the fresh breath of a stylish new comedy. And it is that. And more.

Like the author's very fine The Shape of Things (reviewed here earlier this month), Fat Pig is a one hour and forty-or-so minute, full length, one act play. With this structure, LaBute seems perfectly attuned to a younger generation of antsy theatergoers who were raised on MTV and its like and are bombarded with endless choices for their leisure activities (is there anything actually done leisurely in today's fast paced world?). It is played out over seven well developed scenes each with its own title card.

One: Tom meets Helen at lunch (they are sharing a counter at a casual eatery). He is taken with her open, candid manner and flirtatiousness. Tom makes a date to take her out to dinner. Two: Tom's office. Pushy and domineering, wisenheimer office friend Carter puts two and two together and concludes that Tom is dating. Carter blurts it out to Jeannie, who has been dating the no longer interested Tom. Jeannie asks, "Are you dating someone?," and Tom responds, "No, sort of." Three: Tom and Helen are having dinner in an Asian restaurant. Helen explains that she is okay with her weight. "The problem is getting other people comfortable with it." Carter enters, seeking to hound Tom. When Helen is out of earshot, Carter makes jokes about her weight. He can't imagine that she is the one whom Tom is dating, and Tom encourages him to think that it is a business dinner. Four: Back in Tom's office. It has now dawned on Carter that Tom is dating Helen. Carter rides Tom mercilessly, recruiting the jealous and appalled Jeannie to join in. When Tom starts to turn on him, Carter manipulates Tom by telling him of the pain that he and his father suffered because of the constant eating of his obese mother. He remembers wanting to tell her, " ... don't read the label. Look at yourself in the mirror and put the thing down." Unable to rein in his immature behavior, Carter coaxes a photograph of Helen from Tom's hands, and runs off to share it with their co-workers. Any man who has ever allowed a nasty "friend" to put down or mistreat a new dating partner will recognize Tom's weakness.

There follows a scene, a very difficult one to stage at that, that epitomizes the triumph that this production is for author, director and actors. Tom and Helen are in bed at Helen's place. They are watching television (they both like war movies) and making love. There is a sweet and tender eroticism in the writing and the playing which conveys the joy and pleasure which these kindred souls are experiencing. Director Frank Licato is neither restrained nor prurient in his direction of this excellent scene. This makes it all the more poignant when Helen complains that she hasn't met any of Tom's friends, and that he makes her feel that he is hiding out.

Two more scenes remain. They are tough, powerful and believable. In the first, Carter asks Tom questions which he will have to face, raising issues which are real and tough, unpalatable as they may be. The answers as they apply to Tom and his obese, lovely Helen provide a moving, fitting and artful climax to the play.

Amanda Jornov is a revelation as Helen. There is a natural ease in her performance which belies her limited experience. Every facet of her performance and appearance must be calibrated precisely in order to fully engage the viewer. And so it is here.

Marc Donovan nicely conveys the conflicted feelings, weakness of character, and inherent decency of Tom. It is clear that he is more of a victim of our judgmental society than Helen is. Vincent Sagona is right-on on as Carter, the "friend" you would be better off without, but cannot get rid of. Sagona's Carter raises some legitimate issues, but it is always clear that he is more troublemaker than friend. When Tom opines that "things aren't based just on appearance," Carter responds, "No? Just turn on the TV sometime." Tammy Tunyavongs is fierce as the jilted Jeannie. No subtlety needed here. I think many men (misogynists?) will recognize Jeannie's behavior, while many women will find her weird, crazy, and overdrawn.

The minimal, get the job done, scenery by artistic director Lenny Bart keeps Tom's office and Helen's bed at either end of the wide stage at all times with decorations and props defining each of the other settings at the center. A nice touch is the inclusion of cut out glossy magazine photos of good looking, well dressed, high class models on the rear curtained wall at center stage interspersed with cutouts bearing words, such as "stud muffin," "sex sells," and "peel off the pounds". They immediately bring clarity to the central theme of the play. Major kudos to Maggie Baker-Atkins whose excellent costumes for Jornov perfectly capture the appeal and embarrassment attaching to the figure of Helen.

Two first rate Neil LaBute plays have now debuted on New Jersey stages this month. Today, thanks are due the consistently reliable 12 Miles West for the fine job they done in providing us his tasty Fat Pig.

Fat Pig continues performances (Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun. 3 p.m.) through October 15, 2006 at 12 Miles West Center for the Arts, 562 Bloomfield Avenue, Bloomfield, NJ 07003, Box Office 973-259-9188/ online: www.12MilesWest.org.

Fat Pig by Neil LaBute; directed by Frank Licato

Cast
Helen……………….Amanda Jornov
Tom………………….Marc Donovan
Carter……………….Vincent Sagona
Jeannie………..Tammy Tunyavongs


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- Bob Rendell



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