If Neil LaBute wrote a self-help book, it might be called “I’m Not OK, Neither Are You, So Let’s Screw Things Up for Anyone Who Is.” But in “Fat Pig,” an uncharacteristic empathy for the weakness of a white-collar male ruled by rigid peer expectations steers the playwright from his customary terrain of emotional brutality to the entrapment of self-image. And unexpectedly, the uneven play is most absorbing not when chronicling the virulent behavior that is the writer’s stock in trade but when assessing its casualties, sympathetically embodied by Jeremy Piven and likable newcomer Ashlie Atkinson.
Like a dyspeptic version of the Farrelly brothers’ “Shallow Hal,” LaBute’s new play centers on a man who sees beyond his zaftig girlfriend’s girth to discover the warm, genuine and, yes, radiantly beautiful person beneath. Considering the vipers he works with, the attraction is understandable.
LaBute’s 1992 play (later his feature debut) “In the Company of Men” described a triangle composed of two bored corporate types who exercise their animosity by setting out to romance a vulnerable hearing-impaired woman and then emotionally eviscerate her. The playwright appears to have mellowed somewhat, as the path from seduction to destruction here is no longer a blood sport but the unplanned outreach of a seemingly complacent man numbed by his soulless environment and the toxins of the dating game.
Opening is about as close to meet-cute as you get from LaBute. Onto Louisa Thompson’s frosty, steel-and-glass set strolls Helen (Atkinson), carrying a tray. Against the audio backdrop of a crowded lunchtime cafeteria, Helen proceeds to munch on pizza while contentedly reading a book in an extended, dialogue-free prologue that’s both uncomfortable and intriguing. When businessman Tom (Piven) enters and ends up sharing Helen’s table, the two strike up an instant rapport.
Thanks to the spontaneity of their repartee, as played with considerable appeal by Atkinson and Piven, the audience is perhaps less surprised than Tom when he responds to Helen’s directness by asking her out.
Back in Tom’s office what appears to be some weeks later, we meet the noxious colleagues this well-meaning man reluctantly calls friends. Frustrated by his refusal to spill details about the new girl he’s seeing, Tom’s smugly self-satisfied buddy Carter (Andrew McCarthy) creates friction by informing accounting staffer Jeannie (Keri Russell), “Tom’s got a gal.”
A fetching but brittle toothpick of a woman, Jeannie has refused to receive Tom’s signals that he’s uninterested in continuing to date her.
The evolution of Tom and Helen’s relationship from tentative romance to sex to love is paralleled by the growth of the sabotaging scorn of Carter and Jeannie. But while the unpleasant edge that enlivens LaBute’s best writing is no less evident here, the scenes in which Tom endures his colleagues’ needling become repetitive and far less interesting than his stage time with Helen.
There’s an involving emotional exposure to the couple’s exchanges, in which Tom tries to minimize Helen’s concerns about being hidden away from his other life as a cause for embarrassment. Given this small departure from LaBute’s usual sourness, the audience really wants to see these two beat the odds and stick together.
Piven ably communicates Tom’s fear that underneath his sensitive exterior, he’s just another slick Carter with a built-in requirement for svelte arm candy, at the same time revealing the character’s aching need for something more real.
Atkinson confidently balances Helen’s strong sense of herself with a protective self-deprecation mechanism. (All four characters are defensive in different ways.) When she feels her happiness threatened and starts nervously suggesting radical diets and surgery to fit into Tom’s world, the desperate undermining of her hard-won self-esteem is quite moving.
But the writing is less nuanced in constructing external factors to feed the couple’s insecurities, notably a company beach volleyball event. An improbably masochistic choice for the couple as Helen’s first public exposure in Tom’s environment, the beach excursion seems a forced theatrical construct and ends the play on an uncertain note, not helped by director Jo Bonney’s unimaginative staging of the scene.
The reverse-type casting of the male characters works well. Piven has displayed a firm handle on glib, affably irritating types, most recently as the power-wielding agent on HBO’s “Entourage,” while McCarthy will be forever identified as the handsome sweetheart of the ’80s Brat Pack, like Rob Lowe minus any hint of sexual menace. In his New York stage debut, Piven makes Tom’s weakness a sad, all-too-human reality, a cause more for pity than for contempt. McCarthy’s Carter is a brash manipulator entirely without loyalties.
But Carter seems a pat creation for LaBute. The revelation of his personal agenda against obesity is only partly convincing, as are his influential moments of fraternal advice to Tom. And Carter’s affinity with the similarly venal Jeannie signposts developments between them well in advance.
Russell (“Felicity”) musters a suitably prickly veneer but her lack of stage experience shows in Jeannie’s self-conscious, angular body language.
Divided into seven redundantly titled scenes — “That First Meeting With Her,” “The Work Friends Figure It Out,” etc. — the action could be more forcefully shaped by Bonney, but remains engrossing nevertheless. Thompson’s modern, utilitarian set and Matt Frey’s sharp lighting together function efficiently with resourceful modulations to describe not only the cafeteria and office but also a sushi restaurant, a bedroom and the beach.