Opening cafeteria image of plus-size librarian Helen (Kirsten Vangsness) with a giant tome in one hand and a giant pizza slice in the other instantly confirms Neil LaBute’e title “Fat Pig” as neither ironic nor metaphorical. Not that either character or actress is anything but warm, winning and even elegant. But when movie-star handsome stranger Tom (Scott Wolf) asks to share her counter, one dreads the ugly jokes and humiliations sure to follow. Surprise: As large as Helen is, the tender heart of both play and Jo Bonney’s production is easily twice as big.
Scene one, a model of economy and structure, lays out in miniature the dynamic that will bring Tom and Helen from small talk to serious talk, and just maybe to commitment. Her coping strategy (kid yourself before others can) bounces amusingly against his inability to realize when she’s joking and respond accordingly. They don’t “meet cute”; they meet real, and it plays as cute. Scene ends with play’s central challenge as she offers him her number and pleads, “Just don’t be afraid, Tom.”
Biggest source of fear is his office friends and neighbors, represented here by buddy Carter (a properly sardonic Chris Pine), quick to offer putdowns and easy betrayals, and sort-of inamorata Jeannie (lissome, lethal Andrea Anders) who can’t decide whether she’s angrier at being dumped, or at being dumped for the likes of Helen. LaBute generously assigns each a vulnerable moment or two to offset their selfishness and bad counsel, but mostly they serve to complicate Tom’s struggles to know his own mind and live by it.
The Snickers/Sweet ‘n’ Low romance may wind up in predictable fashion, but “Fat Pig” is never routine because it isn’t only, or even mostly, about body image and our embarrassment over human difference. Its broader concern is the calculus of social intercourse: the minuet we’re all forced to dance as we wend our way among our true feelings and the different lies we tell ourselves and each other. Tom’s not a wordsmith, so his dance is largely interior, and this production is blessed with an actor whose years of TV closeups have taught him something about letting readable thoughts play across his face.
It’s unclear whether Tom’s characteristic gesture — tugging up his trousers at the belt — is an actor’s choice or tic, but Wolf fully convinces as a man uncomfortable in his skin, just as Helen is totally at ease in hers until the unfamiliar stirrings of passion well up and she’s lost. Aud fave Vangsness inhabits both the gusto and the despair with heartbreaking precision, abetted by the fun-fabric outfits from Tina Haatainen Jones that hang as perky or pathetic depending on the actress’s emoting.
Bonney sees to it that the scene changes (often a problem in LaBute’s elaborately cinematic stage conceptions) are as crisp as the playing, by having Lap-Chi Chu light a character on whom we can concentrate as staff shift the walls and furniture pieces of Louisa Thompson’s sleekly modular set.
One might carp at Carter’s too-bald statement of theme (“We’re all just one step away from being what frightens us”), or the unlikelihood that the craven Tom would choose an office beach party, where everyone is maximally exposed, as the venue to introduce Helen to his peers. But those quibbles pale before the play’s pleasures and eloquence. Has LaBute ever loved and understood a character more than Helen? She urges her conflicted lover, “Just be clear and honest.” It’s advice that her author has unfailingly followed.