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Weighty Matters 

Neil LaBute takes a tragic look at human frailty in Fat Pig.

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Do a Google search on the terms “Neil LaBute” and “misogynist”'go ahead, I’ll wait'and you’ll find more than 24,000 hits. Ever since LaBute burst into the popular consciousness with his 1997 Sundance film In the Company of Men, through original works like Your Friends and Neighbors and The Shape of Things, the conventional critical wisdom has coalesced around this idea that the BYU-schooled Mormon'and don’t think for a moment that that identity doesn’t play into the conventional wisdom'hates women. It’s the same lazy school of “adjective + artist = sweat-free critical analysis” writing that also gives us 20,000 Google hits on the terms “Quentin Tarantino” and “nihilist.” And in both cases, the conventional wisdom is stupid-wrong.

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LaBute’s works are a lot of things'caustic, discomfiting, profane'but anyone who stops to think about Fat Pig for more than a minute and a half should realize that “woman-hating” is not inevitably one of them. Pygmalion Productions’ regional premiere of Fat Pig finds the filmmaker and playwright delving again into his real recurring motifs: power dynamics, gender roles and how weakness of character turns into fear.

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Fat Pig opens with a meeting of two people at a buffet restaurant. Businessman Tom (Blake Barlow) and librarian Helen (Stacey Utley-Bernhardt) share a table, striking up a flirtatious conversation in the process. And part of that conversation includes plenty of self-deprecation: Helen is overweight, and makes sure to let Tom know she’s not oblivious to that fact.

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Tom claims not to consider her size a big deal, but as their relationship grows more serious, it becomes clear that he’s full of crap. He hides Helen from friends and co-workers like Carter (Stein Erickson) and his co-worker ex-girlfriend Jeannie (Andra Harbold), and finds himself unable to let his public behavior match what he claims to be feeling for Helen.

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Those who have found LaBute’s work off-putting in the past aren’t likely to have their minds radically changed by Fat Pig. Plenty of familiar elements from his other writings are in place, with Carter as the nigh-obligatory alpha-male jerk and a somewhat bleak view of human behavior in general. If you’re looking for an optimistic pick-me-up, look elsewhere.

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But while the title alone may suggest a mocking perspective on female body-image issues, that’s not remotely the approach LaBute takes. The play comes to focus on Tom’s fear of how others will look at him if he’s seen publicly with a “big-boned” woman. An angry Jeannie at one point laments the phenomenon of “baby boys with their nice clothes,” and LaBute nails the way men are so frequently stuck in adolescent games of one-upmanship that includes being seen with the hottest babe. Being seen as someone who can’t “do better” means being seen as weak'and in LaBute World, showing weakness is fatal.

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Director Shellie Waters has put together a terrific four-player cast to bring this world to life. The cad roles in LaBute works are always the showiest, and Erickson certainly has fun with Carter. But Harbold gives an undercurrent of tragic self-loathing to her clingy Jeannie, while Barlow’s small gestures of unease'a quick glance around when Helen makes a gesture of familiarity during their initial meeting'speak volumes about Tom. And Stacey Utley-Bernhardt builds her performance as a beautiful, decent person to a heartbreaking speech in which she surrenders herself to someone unworthy of her.

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The production has its bumps, some perhaps attributable to opening night. Props were left knocked over during scene changes, and a closing music cue intruded over the last line of dialogue. The deep Black Box Theatre stage itself sometimes threatened to swallow the characters in such an intimate story; an additional backdrop might have been a better choice. But the actors keep the focus on LaBute’s vision of people whose chances at happiness are thwarted by their own fears. Like Helen herself, LaBute deserves better than the surface reactions he gets from the world.

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FAT PIG
Pygmalion Productions
Rose Wagner
Black Box Theatre
138 W. 300 South
Through Oct. 14
355-ARTS

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