Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Review of Green Light's production of Neil Labute's "Fat Pig," 9-1-06

Many people hide love affairs; that decision is a central plot element in plays ranging from Romeo and Juliet to Hedda Gabler to Tristan and Isolde. In most of these works, the secrecy is only a plot device. However, in Neil Labute’s Fat Pig, the entire play centers around a handsome and likeably vulnerable young businessman named Tom, who misleads his friends and himself, all because his new girlfriend Helen is excessively overweight.

While this sounds intriguing, the simple plot and underdeveloped theme only serves to waste some of Philadelphia’s significant talent. Charlotte Northeast, as the jaded ex-girlfriend Jeanne deserved a far better role than this play offered, and she delivered her few lines with a well-modulated nastiness. Her part is the smallest of the four, a role LaBute only uses to contrast the joy Tom now shares with Helen, against the suffering the audience must imagine he previously endured with her. Even without much text, Northeast made this abundantly clear. However, she failed to offer even a single moment of affection between the lines that would have justified her complaints. This is doubly strange: she complains that she and Tom “should have been engaged by now,” but since Northeast never gave a reason to accept that logic, her later outbursts are then only justifiable by an egotistic self-centeredness. This choice is understandable, but still diminished the production, as it missed an opportunity to add a depth that Northeast could have easily provided.

Damon Bonetti gave the most thorough performance of the night, as he successfully portrayed the evolution of Tom’s character. He begins the play both confident and boyish, a man who admits his faults, but is still someone who doesn’t even blanch when his friend comments on his level of courage. From here, Bonetti gives a slow and well-measured degeneration, as he cowers and lies, lashes out at those he once cared about, and finally, in the full light of self-awareness, despairs over what he sees. His concealment is well effected; he is completely believable when he lies to Jeanne, Helen, and his friend Carter, and only at the end of the play do both he and the audience fully realize cowardice has motivated all of his actions.

As Helen, Natalie Randazzo is fine, but only that. Many of her early lines involve so much self-deprecation that all Randazzo can realize is the insecurity, and everything else she tries seems false. Most of the humor in the play comes from Randazzo insulting herself, all of which director Dawn Cowle worked to maximum, if cruel effect. But Randazzo fails to convince us of the lies she tells Tom and herself through all of this, and gives no evidence to suggest that she is anything but needy. Most, but not all of this stems from LaBute’s script, which relies too heavily on the stereotype of a fat person who feels insecure in a beauty and image centered culture. Yet in the final scene, she demonstrated an under-utilized intensity when, despite her claim to contentedness, she reveals that she “eats when she’s upset.” Here Randazzo knelt prayer-like on the ground, huddled up like a cornered rat, and nibbled nervously on a hot dog. Both creepy and perverse in execution, this was one of the best moments of acting in the whole play.

When he didn’t try to look or sound clever, Allen Radway’s performance of Carter demonstrated an ability that he should have focused throughout the play. Though LaBute reserved most of his lines for humor, Radway twice captivated the audience with his effortless movement between telling fat jokes to a display of the intense anguish and hatred that motivated them. The rest of the time, Radway only made it obvious that he studied comedy with the great acting coach, Chandler Bing. This lack of comedic inventiveness on his part, especially in the mannerisms he displayed, grew old quickly.

The dynamic between Tom and Helen showed the only fault in Cowle’s direction. She made the pauses in their dialogue too awkward and drawn out, which only diffused what they felt onto the audience. This lessened any belief that Helen could charm Tom in a food court (of all places) during the first scene. Later, the length of these pauses created more problems, as their awkwardness hampers the clarity of Tom’s motivations in the relationship. Because of this, there is no certainty in what the director attempts—whether she wanted to make it clear that Tom did love Helen or whether he treats her as a water break, a mere respite from the pressures of his life.

The biggest disappointment of the night rests on the pages of the script. LaBute’s play provided no insight, no elucidation of the theme, merely an unfulfilled promise of issues unexplored. The summation of LaBute’s thematic development came when Carter remarked of fat people, “We hate them because we realize that we’re just a few steps away from them.” But this statement neither proved nor exemplified anything, as it only runs in a circle—we cannot hate someone because we could become them if we did not already possess reasons for our hatred. Here Labute’s avoidance coincided disastrously with the simplicity of the plot, leaving too many questions unanswered, squandering the ability of these actors, and detracting immensely from this production.

Two hours later, Tom can no longer hide in the island of his relationship. Every event is weaved into this one narrative—and as a result, there is very little for the actors to stage. To make it worse, LaBute fails to develop his theme with any fullness—the characters don’t even represent “sides” for or against what Tom is doing to Helen, and more so: not even Tom’s character grasps this struggle. Maybe LaBute wanted to write a play about Tom’s self-realization—at the end of the play, he breaks down, and you’re left wondering, unsympathetically, whether his tears flow because of his cowardice or because he’s losing someone he has truly loved. But neither LaBute nor the choices of the director make this obvious, and the play’s finish only makes the audience glad that this drama is over.

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