Looks might not be everything, but in Neil LaBute's lacerating take on love, sex and body image now making its Michigan debut at Royal Oak's Stagecrafters second stage looks are what matters.
The play is called Fat Pig. It's a cynical helping of nastiness from playwright and master of casual cruelty LaBute, though it's leavened considerably with humor and a tablespoon of tenderness. What's both surprising and satisfying is that such a bitter dish is served by a venue known more for offering fluffier confections. Fat Pig reinforces Stagecrafters' recent commitment to more challenging contemporary fare, a risky strategy that, judged by the quality of this production, is starting to pay off.
This intimate four-person dramedy focuses on LaBute's pet themes of superficial males and their petty insecurities. It's sharply funny and involving, simultaneously richer and shallower than it initially appears.
Tom (Josh Bartlett) and Helen (Leah Inabnitt) meet during lunchtime at a crowded downtown café that looks suspiciously like a Sbarro's. He works in a nearby building, she's a librarian, and her initial offer to share a table turns into conversation and then something more. She's attracted to his self-effacing wit, and he's intrigued by her amiability, honesty and unladylike fondness for old war movies like The Guns of Navarone.
When she says, "Fat people are jolly," her comfort with herself and her plus-size figure is a refreshing tonic to his intensely status-conscious social circle.
The two begin dating, and soon rumors fly in Tom's posh workplace. Just who is his new mystery lady?
The chief inquisitor is smarmy sadist Carter (Jason Dilly), a wise-cracking dude whose cues on feminine perfection come from scantily clad cuties on pages of the lad mags strewn about Tom's spacious office. Even more curious about Tom's newest lover is the more conventionally hot Jeannie (Vicki Briganti), whose on-and-off relationship with him has suddenly gone cold. None of Tom's "friends" could ever imagine a universe where such a good-looking guy could date a disgusting porker like Helen; their incessant probing makes Tom want to drive his affair further underground.
Eventually the loving odd couple is spotted together at a sushi bar, and the ensuing torrent of nasty jokes, whispers and malicious e-mails starts to drive a wedge into their wall of romantic bliss. Everything comes to a head at a company beach party, where lots of skin and long-simmering issues get exposed to the harsh light of day.
That's really about the size and shape of Fat Pig, which explores its core concept with frankness and smarts, but is far from definitive about the details.
Is Tom a chubby-chaser? If he is, it comes as a surprise to him. We never get a clear picture of his breakup with the svelte Jeannie was it simply her shallowness or his desire for something more substantial? Helen is also a bit of an enigma; aside from her openness and sophisticated pop culture tastes, it's uncertain what he sees in her, probably because the pessimistic LaBute tends to have difficulty trusting in the virtue of somebody who is actually nice.
The cast does a credible job of, um, fleshing out the characters, even in their thinly rendered spots. Josh Bartlett gives a marvelously subtle and sincere performance as Tom, lending him a vulnerability and decency that would be lost by a less talented actor. He fumbles and stops, not because he's forgotten his lines, but because his character is carefully measuring the impact of his every word. As skillful and realistic as he is, his stammering delivery leads to occasional pacing problems, as the others start to anticipate his pauses rather than naturally respond to them. Especially guilty of this is Briganti, whose tendency is to overplay the room, though she has enough charm to keep Jeannie from becoming a simple shrill villain.
Jason Dilly is hilarious, gleefully nailing every punch line with a smirk, and his scenes with Bartlett have the feeling of genuine locker-room camaraderie. He steals every scene that isn't nailed down; yes, he gets the script's best stuff, but he's a blast to watch. Somewhat less successful is Leah Inabitt, who often struggles to define Helen beyond general indistinct softness though she has the trickiest role.
These roles were originated off-Broadway by the likes of Jeremy Piven, Andrew McCarthy and Keri Russell, so it's a credit to all that they fill such famous shoes gracefully.
Thursday-Sunday, March 8-11, at Stagecrafters' second stage at the Baldwin Theatre, 415 S. Lafayette Ave., Royal Oak; 248 541-6430.
Corey Hall is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org