It starts with the sort of happy meeting that fills the dreams of the lonely: Tom (Shad Cooper) carries his tray into a bustling lunchtime joint, scanning the room for a place to stand and consume his chow. He's out of luck, until the quietly radiant Helen (Celia Forrest) offers him a place next to hers. They chat, share a few laughs, and agree to go out that Friday.
So begins Fat Pig. The title alone of Neil LaBute's 2004 play, staged here in a regional premiere by Walking Shadow Theatre Company, dredges up the cruelty that's LaBute's trademark. His plays, such as In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things, have been built around plotting gimmicks and over-the-top evil. Here, however, he allows at least some hint of sweetness before ushering in an all-too-plausible tale of moral timidity.
Director Amy Rummenie is in command of this difficult tone from the outset. Tom and Helen appear immediately smitten after discussing their shared love of old war movies. And in a sneakily sensual moment, Helen seduces the salad-eating Tom into licking the lid of a pudding cup. Cooper here is all self-effacing charm, while Forrest appears comfortable in her own skin—and also giddy that her character's surprise suitor seems oblivious to her frame.
Tom returns to his office, which is decorated with a framed TEAMWORK poster that depicts a rowing crew pulling together toward a common goal. This is, what do you know, irony. To wit, the suggestion that Tom has a new girl in his life provokes delight and outrage from buddy Carter (Ben Thietje) and quasi-girlfriend Jeannie (Jennifer Phillips).
Thietje is spot-on as the malicious prick, couching his limitless antagonism as friendly banter. Phillips lays on the vacuous revenge of a woman scorned from a not-so-hot relationship with Tom. "I'm not saying I'm some glamour queen," pronounces Jeannie. "But guys like me." Cooper by this point plays Tom as a self-conceived good-guy determined to balance all the spinning plates of his life.
Ah, but the rumor afoot is merely that he has a new girl. No one has yet to learn that the lass is a plus-size beauty, though Carter gets the first inkling when he spots Tom dining with Helen. Tom lies that Helen is a corporate visitor from Chicago, though eventually that falsehood falls apart amid the intricacies of expense-account billing. Here we get the first acrid whiff of the play's theme: everyday courage and the mendacity and meanness cloaked beneath our familiar social fabric.
Duly outed, Tom's hell deepens. Carter expresses sympathy through an excruciating story of his own fat mother and how he harangued her in a supermarket as a teen. (Thietje lends chilling matter-of-fact remorselessness to the tale.) Then he snatches a glamour photo Helen gave Tom and posts it to the company email list. Tom, in a brutal blow to his corporate credibility, is exposed as a chubby chaser.
In a crucial scene, Tom and Helen are alone in bed. Cooper appears alive with passion and desire. Though he has a belief in his own goodness, we see a superficiality and heedless romanticism. Though he's sincere as he caresses his partner, she holds something in reserve. Forrest suggests that this woman somehow knows where this all is heading. This being LaBute, so do we.
Back in the office, Carter tries to impart a truth upon his friend: "Run with your own kind." In other words, Tom, a nice-looking guy with a good job, mustn't waste his prime with a fat girl. Thietje oozes false sympathy, but delivers Carter's advice with stinging truth. Tom tries to protest, but he's eventually overwhelmed by his ex, who rages with a near-sociopathic interpretation of Tom's romance. More or less, it is this: You love a fat woman because you want to degrade me!
Ultimately, Helen shines as the only sane and morally courageous character—for all the good it does her. And LaBute pushes past shock value to find something genuine and sad. Is anyone in the audience better than Tom? Yes, one hopes, all the while suspecting not.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Minneapolis & St. Paul and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.