Boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy agonizes whether girl's calorie intake will come between them. Not the trajectory of your average romantic comedy, but then Neil LaBute's notions of relationships aren't exactly hearts and flowers. In the West Coast premiere of "Fat Pig" at the Geffen's Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, love means never having to say you're sorry -- to other people, that is, for dating a woman whose inner thighs rub together.
Tom (Scott Wolf), blandly handsome and looking for something genuine, gets serious with Helen (Kirsten Vangsness), a zaftig librarian with an actual inner life. She's a welcome change-up from the wreckage of Tom's office fling with Jeannie (Andrea Anders) and constant harassment by snarky co-worker Carter (Chris Pine), the play's Darwinian mouthpiece (there's always one in LaBute). Tom insists Helen's size doesn't bother him, but why won't he introduce her to his friends?
LaBute has called "Fat Pig" a "study in weakness," and he tips the narrative scales in favor of Tom's struggle to stay true to his better impulses.
Despite its deliciously vulgar title, the play isn't about weight but rather a man's character in the balance. You want to know more about Helen, as she's the only tolerable personality in the piece, but LaBute intentionally keeps her at a distance: She's the mirror in which Tom must gauge his moral stature. Hint: There ain't much to see.
For Tom is a man without "qualities" (the word reappears over and over), a Bartleby in Kenneth Cole who prefers not to ... tell the truth. (To him, Helen's vocation is that of a "printed word specialist.") He lies instinctively, hedging to keep things running smoothly in the moment, then can't figure out why men dog him and women want to kill him.
Because LaBute is so good at getting under people's skins, he's accused of being a misanthrope or a misogynist. He's neither (or perhaps no more so than anyone else) and the name-calling just proves he's onto something.
LaBute writes parables of differentiation, morality tales of egos struggling to self-define apart from the way other people imagine them. Hell, he seems to say, is giving a damn about the opinions of others.
As directed by the capable Jo Bonney, who also helmed the play's premiere in New York in 2004, "Fat Pig" is an effective chamber piece for smaller venues like the Skirball Kenis and an opportunity for strong actors to turn in close character reads. Wolf, a likable actor in the pretty unlikable role of Tom, credibly tortures himself and gives the final scene some real emotional heft.
Vangsness' Helen is a vibrant, affecting presence, although she seems to be muffling an impulse to make this woman as smart as she might be. Anders and Pine relish the few full-blown dramatic moments on offer to them.
Louisa Thompson's modular set, with its mobile walls and furniture, suggests a slick, angular world in which nothing so undulant as excess flesh should find purchase. And costumer designer Tina Haatainen Jones gives Vangsness an appropriately loud wardrobe, emblematic of the fashion limbo into which plus-size women are cast by the rag trade.
But though the production coheres, the play itself can feel uncharacteristically thin for LaBute.
In "The Shape of Things," for instance, the playwright found a deceptively powerful darkness in a conventional setup -- a makeover, that most American of conversion narratives -- as well as the knotty language of how people get mixed up in each other. Here he hasn't found a commensurately dramatic setup (or tone) for Tom's quandary.
Helen loves war movies, and LaBute implies that Tom's fighting a marathon battle of his own. But the enemy, both within and without, lacks the kind of queasy impact to implicate us. Doesn't Carter's stark assessment that Tom should "run with your own kind" deserve a stronger hearing? Up against the charming Vangsness, we can only interpret Carter's position as vapid. By occasionally pulling his punches, LaBute keeps Tom -- and the audience -- from fully seeing what we're made of.
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Thursdays, 8:30 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays
Ends: June 10
Contact: (310) 208-5454,
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes