by Charles Marowitz
(Swans - March 27, 2006) Obesity is the shame of America and escaping it, the national obsession. Dieting, exercise, and body sculpting have become manias, and slimness the unachievable ideal. "Fat" is the inexcusable insult. We take refuge in euphemisms like "big boned" or "oversized" to avoid repugnant adjectives such as "corpulent," "porcine," and "humongous." Dieticians, restaurants, food manufacturers, and health addicts spend billions in advertising revenue to persuade us that we should imbibe less calories and non-fatty acids -- all to no avail. We remain a nation of blubbery, flabby, bovine, and overfed mammals who shudder in horror at the appalling reflections thrown back in our bathroom mirrors.
Playwright and film maker Neil LaBute has come up with a "beaut" of a play which explores the way this social stigma wrecks lives and inflicts misery -- not only among overweight social pariahs, but also among those sensitive and misguided souls who occasionally fall for them. Formulaically, Fat Pig can be reduced to: "Boy meets Fatso - Boy loses Fatso - Boy and Fatso live unhappily ever after." A typical scenario from a writer who has made a specialty of exploring the underside of office intrigue and the sadists who prey on weak and vulnerable fellow workers (viz. In The Company Of Men, The Shape of Things, etc.). Insights that say as much about the downside of capitalism as they do the cruelties of the dating game -- a kind of gallows version of Sex In The City.
The only redeeming aspect of LaBute's heartless fable is that his young, with-it protagonist actually experiences something resembling genuine affection for his bovine sweetheart before peer pressure, and a cynical fellow worker, force him to see the light and unceremoniously dump her. Every overweight female member in the audience is pulling for "the fat pig" to land the upwardly mobile, attractive young executive, but their hopes are bitterly dashed when an attempt to integrate the "fatso" into his corporate milieu fails miserably. Being left high and dry by her desirable beau shatters the bliss of every over-caloried female in the audience and delivers a stinging rebuke to those people who are foolish enough to believe that "wholesome character" in some way atones for excess flab.
In that sense, this is one of the cruelest of LaBute's efforts as it leads us merrily up the garden path only to dump us into a well of quicksand when we get to the top of it. To the extent that we take away a moral from this heartless exercise in mismatched mating, it is that social acceptance amongst one's peer group will always triumph over true love -- no matter how heartfelt that love may be.
At the curtain call of this four-character play (which I caught at the Studio Theatre in Washington D.C.), one could feel large sections of the audience recoil from the character of Tom (Tyle Pierce) who is talked out of granting happiness and marriage to the "fat pig" he ostensibly adores (Kate Debelack) -- just as the cheers for the pig herself attempt to mitigate the pain we have just seen her undergo. In that sense, LaBute has written something of a l9th century melodrama where we are encouraged to hiss the villain (Tom, the young man who cannot act upon the courage of his emotional convictions) and pity the heroine (the luckless Helen who, having come to terms with her weight problem, gradually gains the full sympathy of the audience). The play acts as a kind of barometer registering what we all feel about people who have been stigmatized by the bogus values of our society; values which glorify slim, self-confident lollapaloozas who have stepped out of the pages of Vogue and social misfits who betray the esthetic ideals we have been taught to cherish.
Kate Debelack, the eponymous character depicted in the title of the play, is a large, flabby, sweet-natured young actress who deserves some kind of medal for volunteering to perform the role of Helen, a large, flabby, sweet-natured lady like herself. In one scene that takes place on a beach during a corporate outing, Ms. Debelack appears in a bathing suit, which provides the audience with both a dorsal and full frontal view of her amplitude. It is the kind of eye-gouging assault on the senses that causes us to change seats on a bus or a train when a person of girth squeezes into the seat beside us, or makes us snicker and look for sardonic similes when they pass us on the street. LaBute's play forces us to deal directly with Helen's largesse and our prejudices in regard to it and, in that regard, is powerfully dramatic. More so than the kind of obscenity or pornography that films or plays usually dispense. In the intimate surroundings of a studio theatre, every audience member is, so to speak, put on the spot. They are obliged to set aside their own prejudices and assimilate what is unfolding in the narrative of a play that is literally dealing with their own repulsions. This is akin to Brecht's "alienation effect" which, when it works, causes a spectator both to experience fictional circumstances and comprehend the concealed social truth they are depicting. I don't mean to suggest that Fat Pig is up there along with Mother Courage or The Good Woman Of Setzuan, but its devices work quite similarly, jolting spectators in a way they are not usually jolted.
LaBute is, in many ways, the ornery offspring of David Mamet. Like Mamet, he uses fragmented, interrupted speech patterns to convey the on-again/off-again flow of our muddied streams of consciousness. He employs the crass vernacular that has become the prevailing mode of middle-class American speech and, if anything, has an even more palsied view of human nature than his mentor. In a society mesmerized by gossip and immersed in the kind of effluence that regularly issues from Reality Shows and tabloid journalism, a playwright like LaBute is wincingly representative of our 2lst century American culture. There may well be a moral suasion tucked beneath his plays, but it is of less interest to him than displaying the galloping amorality on its surface. In a world where cruelty, malevolence, and social acceptance constitute our primary drives, Fat Pig is the kind of play that could be sealed away in one of those time capsules to give future generations an accurate picture of the sordid life of our times.
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