As in much fiction, and occasionally in life, the set-up for Fat Pig, the Neil LaBute play at the Aurora, is simple, leading to complications that threaten that initially apparent simplicity.
Tom (Jud Williford) meets Helen (Liliane Klein) by chance in a fast-food lunch stop. A boyish, somewhat diffident junior exec, he finds himself tongue-tied with his new acquaintance, partly because she’s direct and a clever conversationalist, and partly because she’s big, overweight, and Tom doesn’t want to say the wrong thing. But the strands of friendship are there. They agree to meet again.
This tête-à-tête is contrasted with the life-in-a-terrarium at Tom’s office, which is constantly invaded by his coworker, basketball buddy and sometime friend Carter (Peter Ruocco), a wise-ass if there ever was one, and Jeannie (Alexandra Creighton), who works in accounting, used to go out with Tom, and is still wonders what happened between them, why they’re not already engaged.
As Tom and Helen begin to get close, there’s a stir in his office circle: where’s he spending his time and with whom? And when they—rather literally—pull it out of him, the hazing begins: Carter says he sympathizes—his mother was obese—but what’s his friend (and the butt of his practical jokes) doing, throwing away career and social opportunities on an obvious liability? And Jeannie, salty and desperate, wonders if he’s seeing a “fat bitch” just to hurt her.
And Helen has to wonder as well: Why is it always just the two of them? Why doesn’t Tom introduce her to his friends and let her show him off in her circle? He promises to take her to the company picnic on the Fourth—the only outdoor scene in an otherwise claustrophobically urban—not just urban but “downtown”—play, where what began with a halting dialogue peters out in the bright sun, with an awkward monologue by Tom, with Helen reduced to just listening.
The cast is very good at portraying their characters, in particular Liliane Klein (who’s played Helen before) and Jud Williford, who builds Tom’s facial tics of frustration, anxiety and indecision into a veritable score. Barbara Damashek, who’s directed other plays at Aurora and many others around the Bay, has directed Fat Pig well. And the production values, as usual for Aurora, are pretty high: Mikiko Uesugi’s set, Jim Cave’s lights, Maggie Whitaker’s costumes and Chris Houston’s sound design and original music.
LaBute’s play shows sensitivity and some insight into contemporary human relations—though that sounds like what it would be called at the office. The comedy of an otherwise almost bleak situation allows for a few good physical turns.
But if Tom realizes his own fear and lack of character may drive him back to conformity, the uncomfortable norm, the audience finds itself left with that emptiness, ornamented by much exposition and a few comic routines that spoof the same, and not much else. In that sense, Carter wins: “It’s a joke, dude!”
Three-quarters of a century ago or so, George M. Cohan—who was much more than a Yankee Doodle Dandy—glibly defined the form of the commercial play, which Hollywood absorbed for the feature film: “Act one, send your hero up a tree; act two, throw rocks at him; act three, get him back on the ground again.” That formula’s adhered to by LaBute, a kind of parody , with a conclusion so abrupt, it has the effect of a quick blackout.
To recall another, much older American story somewhat parallel—one that spanned the media, from novel to stage to several film versions, An American Tragedy showed a boyish young man with no moral will, who drops a young working-class woman to consort with a rich one, committing a crime to cover his tracks. It gives the reader—or spectator—the sense of a complex of events, of society, not just the emptiness of the protagonist or the melodrama that unfolds because of it, but of how things work or don’t work, not just how a situation turns out. And that goes for the best of modern storytelling, since Balzac and Stendhal took the middling man as subject of their art.
In Fat Pig, a forlorn guy, caught in a vacant milieu, glimpses a dream beyond that sordid situation and realizes he
hasn’t the capacity to make it real. (How real it is, or could be, is criticized negatively only by Carter) So Tom must sink back, self-consciously, into a kind of nothingness, unable to commit.
That’s a lot of nothing, a lot of empty, but a surfeit of self-consciousness. It begs the question, but only to the extent of maybe wishing for a happy storybook—or Hollywood—ending, in which “the hero would save America and get the girl.”
There’s the basis for meaningful comedy—or melodrama—here, but, like so much contemporary theater that makes the rounds, it takes its cues from reruns of cable TV stuff at best. A lot of talk, a certain amount of sparkle, but nothing much really happens. Big moral themes, measured out in scant amounts, a synthetic purse turned inside out, a pigeon emerging instead of a dove.
Maybe Fat Pig can best be thought of as light fare for an Indian summer, if the weather holds.
Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St.
Thurs.–Sat. at 8 p. m., Sun. at 2 and 7 p.m.
through Dec. 6.