The opening scene of Neil LaBute's Fat Pig is straight out of a romantic comedy: A man and a woman meet, and a tentative connection is formed.
But anyone who's seen previous LaBute plays and movies—In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things—knows that he writes about the dark potential of emotional connections, and the evil lurking inside of ordinary human relationships. His 2004 Fat Pig is no exception.
In the opening scene of the Studio Connections production, I was charmed by actors Jacinda Rose Swinehart and Alex Samaniego as Helen and Tom, who meet by chance in a crowded café. But I've been hurt by LaBute before, so I remained wary, pretty sure that my heart would be mashed like potatoes by the end of the play.
You see, Helen is fat, and Tom isn't. That's the conflict. This might seem like a minor point—it shouldn't matter. But it does.
Tom works in a fancy office in an unspecified industry; his workmate and friend Carter (Jonathan Northover) is unapologetically superficial when it comes to women. Tom has recently dated Jeannie (Shanna Brock), who is utterly baffled that Tom doesn't want to keep seeing her. She keeps pushing the issue, and she turns vicious when she finds out about Tom's "fat bitch."
Despite knowing how LaBute plays usually end, I couldn't help but hope that Tom and Helen would work out. This proves that the actors and the play were operating as they should: A tragedy is successful when you see the inevitable end, but wish things could be different.
Swinehart and Samaniego manage to bring life to LaBute's naturalistic dialogue; they stop and start and interrupt each other realistically. Samaniego, however, has a tendency to swallow his lines—he talks fast and mumbles a little. It's hard to tell if this is a choice to show Tom's awkwardness, or poor diction on Samaniego's part—or both. Still, the actors create a rapport between Helen and Tom that's believable enough to be painful. As time passes, they economically convey the couple's changing relationship.
At times, their interactions are so convincing that you almost feel as if you were eavesdropping on a real couple's conversation. Tom and Helen's last scene together played so much like a real confrontation that it was actually a little awkward when the lights went up, and the audience had to applaud. The actors were still visibly shaken.
Carter and Jeannie are the play's weak links. They essentially have to stand in for the entire outside world—the society that shuns the overweight. It's too much thematic heft for only two characters, and Carter and Jeannie are too awful to be entirely believable. The scenes in which they badger Tom feel repetitious.
Jeannie is the slightly more-nuanced character, if only because she's acting out of injured love and pride—recognizably human emotions. Brock is well-cast: She's stunningly beautiful, but she manages to make Jeannie feel entitled and insecure enough that the character quickly becomes unattractive.
Carter, the dreadful man-friend, is merely a cipher who is there to spout misogynistic things about overweight women. Toward the end of the play, though, he serves as a mouthpiece for the playwright, delivering a clunky speech declaring that most people hate "difference" because it makes them feel vulnerable, and that only the morally strong can buck societal disapproval.
LaBute does make a brief attempt to humanize Carter. He has him confess that his mother was fat, and that he harbors guilt over mocking her, but neither the speech nor Northover's delivery of it are enough to redeem Carter.
Studio Connections is staging the play at St. Francis in the Foothills church, and the religious setting might feel incongruous—until you remember that playwright LaBute is Mormon, and his plays are largely morality tales. Nothing about the interior of St. Francis is distractingly church-y, though, and the minimal set works well in the space.
Studio Connections' da Vinci Players put on full theatrical productions like Fat Pig, but the group is also an educational organization. In his director's notes, co-founder Robert Encila is in full teacher mode, urging us to "please continue the fight against any form of bullying and keep an eye out for the young person who struggles with self-worth. Takes a village, you know."
But LaBute's dark morality tale is more than an anti-bullying PSA. It asks such questions as, "If we know it's wrong to judge and exclude people, why do we do it anyway?" Also: "Do we have as much moral integrity as we think we do?" These issues are a lot more complex than the simplistic message that bullying is bad.
Luckily, Encila's conception of the play is more sophisticated than his well-intentioned director's notes. He has coaxed nuanced performances out of his two main actors, and his production, as I predicted, left me crushed and heart-sore at the end, which in this context is a very great compliment.