By Michael Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Fine acting and a big message are to be found in a searing production of Neil LaBute's "Fat Pig" from Arlington's Dominion Stage.
It's yet another big step back from near-oblivion for the 58-year-old theater company, which had fallen into significant artistic decay and audience indifference. The injection of creative energy by new board members, including director-actors Scott Olson and Matthew Randall, continues to pay off with this edgy and disquieting work.
"Fat Pig" operates on several levels, as playwright LaBute performs his usual feat of shoving what he sees as the cynicism and cruelty of modern relationships right under our noses. We can't avoid dealing with it, just as we can't help enjoying the way he makes us think. But here, director Sara Joy Lebowitz and a capable cast bring one of LaBute's secondary themes into sharper relief than usual, adding heft, so to speak, to the playwright's message.
What happens when a physically fit and good-looking male executive finds himself attracted to a substantially overweight woman? Ideally, of course, the romance would follow a natural course. But in a society that is increasingly fat but simultaneously holds ever-thinner standards as the ideal, it can't be that simple. Here, peer pressure, self-image and shame compete for attention with attraction and the pleasure the leading man takes in the company of the leading lady.
LaBute allows us to enjoy some of the conventions of romantic comedy, even as he allows harsher realities to intrude. So there are plenty of laughs, but some are tinged with meanness.
Lebowitz has calibrated the performances of the four cast members so that the exploration of peer pressure is stronger than it was when Studio Theatre staged this play two seasons ago. It helps smooth out the play's weak spots, notably the repetitive nature of some of the conversations and the shallowness of the characters.
Chris Holbert and Erin Decaprio are superb as ambitious executive Tom and complacent, overweight librarian Helen. Holbert finds an interesting balance between Tom's professional drive and his inability to articulate, or even fully understand, his core values and feelings. Holbert's dialogue is filled with stalls, as sentences choke off after, "I mean . . . ," or, "I just . . . ," and then nothing. It seems perfectly natural in Holbert's subtle approach. He makes you empathize with Tom, although you want to smack him into figuring out and defending his feelings.
Decaprio works several different levels, outwardly displaying a breezy self-confidence as Helen rides out a storm of emotional upheavals. But, like Holbert, she is understated and draws the audience to her. The play's opening scene, where they "meet cute," is wonderfully choreographed as classic romantic comedy, with a modern twist.
Lebowitz leads them through the minefield of getting to know each other while dealing with . . . would it be too much like LaBute to say . . . the elephant in the room?
No, that would be too much like Carter, Tom's co-worker, played with appropriately smarmy gusto by Chuck Dluhy. Carter is thoroughly obnoxious in his male arrogance. LaBute has him say what many people think but don't say, acting as an annoying, shallow foil for Tom's earnestness.
Allyson Harkey rounds out the foursome as Jeannie, the nicely curved but bitter girlfriend Tom dumps for Helen. Jeannie is given even less dimension than Carter by LaBute, but Harkey's performance adds unexpected depth.
Lebowitz pulls her punches several times. The sexual attraction between Tom and Helen is muted, which doesn't allow us to see Helen as a sexual creature, the way LaBute intended. A bedroom scene lacks heat.
All the truths are bared in the final scene, which takes place on a beach. Tom struggles with Helen's appearance in front of his peers, and he has to resolve his feelings and intentions.
But Lebowitz and Decaprio retreat, leaving Helen mostly covered up as Jeannie taunts Tom with her attractive, bikini-clad body. It doesn't fatally weaken the effort, however, and "Fat Pig" is enjoyably provocative and prickly.
"Fat Pig" continues through Nov. 2, performed by Dominion Stage at Gunston Arts Center's Theatre One, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Showtime Fridays and Saturdays is 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $17 for adults and $15 for seniors and juniors. Seating is general admission. For tickets or information, call 703-683-0502 or visithttp://www.dominionstage.org.