By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Who said good intentions pave the road to you-know-where? In his new play, writer-performer Mario Baldessari sets out to slam bigotry -- an aspiration that might have yielded self-righteous preaching-to-the-choir. Instead, "Fat Gay Jew," the latest offering from new-work hothouse Charter Theatre, proves to be an impish blend of smart satire and deadpan wackiness.
At least, that's the case in director Keith Bridges's suitably low-key production, at Arlington's Theatre on the Run. Baldessari, Renee Calarco and Jim Helein star in the play, which consists of three skits -- one for each word in the title -- performed on a stage that's bare except for a table and a few chairs. "I spent more money on my hair than they did on this set," Helein gripes in one of the break-the-fourth-wall prologues that introduce the sketches.
In the opening playlet -- the funniest of the three -- Baldessari plays Walt, a member of a quasi-Christian cult whose theology includes the belief that only the svelte will go to heaven. "Here's how I remember it: 'Be thin, don't sin, and you're in,' " he soberly informs his sister (Calarco) and her chubby Lay's-addicted husband (Helein), who have made the error of inviting him to dinner. As the conversation devolves from strained chitchat to quirky wrangling about God, hypothyroidism, Pavarotti, the book of Leviticus and whether iceberg lettuce grew in the Garden of Eden, the play encourages its audience to think a little (through the chortling) about body image in contemporary America.
The other two skits also share a little laid-back enlightenment, while reveling in their zany premises. A slightly overlong bar scene introduces a gay-rights advocate (an enjoyably smug Helein), who turns out to be a closet racist, to the horror and indifference, respectively, of his drinking buddies (Baldessari and Calarco). In the final playlet, set in a conference room, two office drones (Helein and Calarco) wrangle about who is more Jewish, as their Catholic colleague (an exuberantly snickering Baldessari) looks on.
Baldessari, whose authorial credits include the comedy "Fear Itself," delivers a script that abounds in droll lines, and revels in dialogue that's funny precisely because it's so excruciatingly tactless or un-PC. "I wish AstraZeneca would invent some kind of pill that could turn guys from gay to straight. You know, just for a night," remarks Calarco's jaw-droppingly uncouth character in the bar scene. Though the skits are conceptual funhouses, the characters are idiosyncratic enough to seem, on some level, like real people -- a quality the cast deftly exploits.
So it's all the more effective when, in the prologues, the actors switch into drama-of-ideas mode, hurling epithets at each other. ("Fatso!" "Piggy!" "Hog!") You didn't think you'd get through an anti-prejudice comedy without a little intense discomfort, did you?
Fat Gay Jew, by Mario Baldessari. Direction and set by Keith Bridges; lighting design, Doug Wilder; sound, Tim Shaw; costumes, Katie Mattingly. 90 minutes. Through May 23 at Theatre on the Run, 3700 S. Four Mile Run Dr., Arlington. Call 202-333-7009 or visit http://www.chartertheatre.org.