It’s one of those sweet serendipitous chance meetings at a crowded downtown lunch counter that brings together two young hormonal breeders looking for love in Neil LaBute’s off-Broadway smash Fat Pig, now making its west coast debut at the Geffen Playhouse.
It doesn’t take long for Helen and Tom (Kirsten Vangsness and Scott Wolf) to realize they have a lot in common, including a similar sense of humor that immediately complements each other beautifully. This oddly natural knack for perfect comic timing initially gives Fat Pig the appearance of being an extremely non-LaButian light ’n frothy romantic farce, featuring rapidfire comedic dialogue not altogether unlike the snappy-patter written by that other famous playwright named Neil.
Thankfully, for anyone familiar with other plays by LaBute, there’s some assurance any rampant Simon-izing won’t be going on for long here. After all, this was written by the guy who gave us The Shape of Things, The Distance from Here, bash, and the films In the Company of Men and Nurse Betty, so there’s some guarantee that it won’t take long for the trans-fats to hit the fryer here.
It also doesn’t take long for the obviously smitten Tom to ask his new acquaintance out to dinner, even if: a.] he’s already quasi-dating his coworker Jeannie (Andrea Anders) and b.] Helen is not only the romantic ingénue of Fat Pig, she’s the title character.
No one makes more jokes about her plus-size stature than Helen, who seems more than comfortable with being on the far side of our era’s obsession with thinness, which is in turn something the sheepish Tom finds totally refreshing. Their relationship grows in leaps and bounds, especially after Tom finally manages to reassure Helen that he likes her just the way she is—after all, though she might be confident in herself, us XXL-ers aren’t easily deluded by flattery from others, nor are we big (no pun intended) on trust.
Soon instinct rules and the realization starts to creep in that Helen’s never met any of Tom’s friends and that he either wants to spend their time together sequestered at home or hiding in some dark corner of an out of the way restaurant, so guess what? It dawns on Helen that maybe she’s being too trusting after all. Surpriiiiiiiiiise!
Tom, you see, is of course something of a hypocrite, never quite finding the guts to explain to Jeannie what happened to their own tossed-aside relationship and too concerned for what she and his other coworkers, particularly a caustic Neanderthal asshole named Carter (Chris Pine), would have to say around the water-cooler if they knew his hot new love interest looked like a Before shot on a commercial for LapBand surgery.
As played on Louisa Thompson’s smartly versatile set and under the sure hand of Jo Bonney, who also directed the original New York production, Vangsness gives a remarkable, truly tour-de-force performance, blessedly simple, heartbreakingly touching, and incredibly sexy, above all finding an amazing level of emotional depth lurking below the surface in her pivotal yet rather predictably written role. In a way, the blank canvas of the playwright’s zaftig heroine seems to work for an actor of Vangsness’ caliber; without offering much of a real character arc with which she can work, LaBute has instead given Vangsness plenty of room to rely on her own pitch-perfect instincts.
Anders and Pine are both dynamic as the dastardly coworkers, and Wolf, though relying a bit too often on sitcom quirkiness in his choices rather than delving more honestly into the derivation of Tom’s weaknesses, still eventually finds his sea legs in the crushingly sad final scene, striking right to the heart as a guy who can’t let go of society’s narrow-minded rules.
Beyond the nearly non-stop humor and clever dialogue here, LaBute is exploring our culture’s communal lack of spine when faced with the unique concept of following our own hearts. Fat Pig leaves the viewer thinking about the nature of peer pressure and asks, in our continuously media-hyped contemporary social order, if it’s still possible to think for ourselves and honestly not give a shit about what anyone else thinks of us or our actions.
It was Ayn Rand, whose politics were as odious as her philosophies were brilliant, who once wrote that most people in our world live as “second-handers,” more concerned about what other people around us think about us and how we live and what we’re perceived to be, rather than the more important question: what we really think of ourselves.
Fat Pig plays through June 17 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Av., Westwood; for tickets, call 310.208.5454.