Fat Pig

Neil LaBute's play about body-size and social douchebaggery gets a sharp production from Theatre en Bloc

Fleshing out the characters (l-r): Jenny Lavery, Ryan Hamilton, Zena Marie Vaughn, Charles P. Stites
Fleshing out the characters (l-r): Jenny Lavery, Ryan Hamilton, Zena Marie Vaughn, Charles P. Stites (Courtesy of Jenny Hanna-Chambers)

Fat Pig

The Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo, 512/522-4083 Through Oct. 20
Running time: 2 hr.

It turns out, guys judge girls on their looks.

I know, right?

A brief, informal survey of dudes says that guys talk with one another about girls' looks, but not about their personalities. Decent men and jerks alike discuss a woman's appearance. Basically by virtue of being on the planet, a woman's appearance is up for evaluation. Where does she rank on a scale of one to 10? Hot or not? And so on.

Women do the same thing, to one another and to men. We generally use more words, but we still do it. Very few people are actually blind. The rest of us use looks to judge.

In that context, consider the plot of Neil LaBute's Fat Pig, onstage now from Theatre en Bloc. Athletic and health-conscious Tom (Ryan Hamilton) meets the obese Helen (Zena Marie Vaughn), and they hit it off. He is disarmed by her candor and her laugh. She likes that neither her size nor her many defense mechanisms scare him off. They start to date.

Tom's co-workers, led by the unrepentant and therefore fascinating asshole Carter (Charles P. Stites), get hold of a picture of Helen, despite Tom's best efforts. They are not gentle.

As Tom and Helen's relationship progresses, it's hard for Helen or anybody else to discern whether Tom is protecting her or ashamed of her. And here is LaBute's great skill as a playwright at work: Maybe it's both. Maybe Tom is wrong but means well. Is he justified in keeping her hidden from colleagues who wouldn't hesitate to show their cruelty? Or is he weak-willed for even bothering with such shallow people, in a world in which even decent guys judge what their buddies' girlfriends look like?

And, let's not forget that women are willing players. Jeannie (Jenny Lavery) is Tom's former office romance. The character unfortunately encapsulates the stereotype of the skinny bitch, but the message is clear: It's not just men who judge. People judge. It's what we do. So what happens to the person of substance – in this case Helen – in the face of standards of appearance that convict her before she's said a word?

Fat Pig is in a lot of ways a thought experiment, one that is enjoyable because LaBute gives so much dimension to the characters. What might be an overdone subject – female body image – is made fascinating via a story with great characters. Theatre en Bloc's cast do good work with their roles, especially Hamilton, who finds many sides to a character who resists easy conviction. If the events of the story are unhappy, they at least are driven by a sense of inevitability that makes the play satisfying.

A nod also to the set design from Patrick and Holly Crowley. Within the budget of a smaller company, they have constructed an interesting and detailed presentation of the play's several locations.

Fat Pig is probably not the kind of play you should take someone to for a first date. It is, however, a well-presented production of a complex and textured script. It is thought-provoking and worth the time to see.

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Austin theatre, Fat Pig, Neil LaBute, Derek Kolluri, Zena Marie Vaughn, Jenny Lavery, Ryan Hamilton, Charles P. Stites

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