Is there a more polarizing figure in the current landscape of American theater than playwright Neil LaBute? The author of The Shape of Things, Autobahn, and Reasons to be Pretty is the de facto champion of pushing the envelope and upsetting audiences on stages all across the country. For the latest Late Night @ Footlight production, the Footlight Players bring out one of his best known and most often produced offerings, the sensitively titled Fat Pig, directed by Charleston theater mainstay Robbie Thomas.
The play (part of a trilogy of self-image titles, alongside the aforementioned Shape and Reasons) examines the effect public perception and personal prejudices have on friendships and, most importantly, romantic relationships. Tom (Christian Self), an average looking guy in an average Fortune 500 firm, meets and falls for Helen (Sarah Coe), a plus-sized librarian who truly has a great personality. Their blossoming romance, and Tom’s opinion of it, must withstand the constant bickering of Tom’s coworker Carter (occasionally heavy handed but played with undeniable truth by Noah Smith) and former girlfriend Jeannie (Sierra Garland, delivering a solid performance here while only missing a few minor keys).
Why LaBute’s plays are so emotionally jarring, and why this production works so well, is that he shows us our most disappointing faults through the prism of likeable, almost forgivable characters. Christian Self, a LaBute veteran, brings the necessary vulnerability and charm to pull off a character that could come across as a shallow coward in the wrong hands. His chemistry with his fellow actors is apparent, but so too is his disappointment in himself. In his final scene, Self does his best acting without uttering a word. In his face you can see everything he wants, both on the beach in front of him and in the life he wishes he had the guts to live. Bravo.
Carrying her weight in this play’s romantic equation is Sarah Coe, who is pound for pound a match with Self. Her Helen is smart, funny, and clearly vulnerable without being fragile. She’s also brave in a way that no other character manages in these two hours — hell, in a way that very few people actually achieve in real life.
I was expecting a lot more from her, though, literally. In Coe’s opening scene with Self, I couldn’t even tell if she was a plus-sized girl or not, a slight costuming misstep in an otherwise well dressed show by Ashley Blair. And this takes nothing away from a brilliant, dimensional performance by Coe. This girl’s size doesn’t matter.
Strong set design seems to be a running theme of this theater season, and Fat Pig delivers here as well. Aly K. Howard, Footlight’s ATD and set designer for the Late Night series, has designed rolling platforms that give us quick and easy shifts between the various locales we need. Robbie Thomas deserves special consideration for keeping the action moving with costume changes happening onstage between scenes. In a play about how we present ourselves to the world, it’s nice to see the steps that creating that image involves.
Neil LaBute isn’t for everybody and the Late Night series isn’t either, but this play should be seen by everybody. We’re all at least little bit shallow, and Fat Pig holds up a mirror and invites us to take a long look. It’s only uncomfortable if you don’t like what you see.