Ashlie Atkinson and Jeremy Piven in Fat Pig(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Ashlie Atkinson and Jeremy Piven in Fat Pig
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Neil LaBute has a knack for exposing the underside of human behavior, the almost casual cruelty that one person can inflict upon another. His feature film debut, In the Company of Men, sparked controversy for its cynical depiction of two male co-workers who relieve their boredom by deciding to both court a deaf woman, build up her self-esteem, and then simultaneously dump her. LaBute's stage play The Shape of Things featured a manipulative female artist who drove a wedge between her boyfriend and his best friends as part of an aesthetic exercise. In his terrific new play Fat Pig, presented by MCC Theater, LaBute shows the pettiness of individuals who deride others for their physical appearance. What gives all of these works their power is that they challenge the audience members' own feelings on issues such as gender and beauty. LaBute's darkly humorous approach is often outrageously funny but, at the same time, it makes you feel guilty for laughing.

Tom (Jeremy Piven) meets Helen (Ashlie Atkinson), and the two fall in love, but their relationship is complicated by the fact that Helen is overweight. Tom is hesitant to introduce her to his co-workers, who of course tease and torment him relentlessly when they find out who he's dating and what she looks like. Carter (Andrew McCarthy) is an insensitive jerk who doesn't seem to have enough work to do, so he spends a lot of time in Tom's office. Jeannie (Keri Russell), who works in accounting, has a dating history with Tom and therefore takes his relationship with Helen as a personal affront; extremely thin as embodied by Russell, Jeannie finds Tom's preference for Helen incomprehensible.

Piven, making his New York stage debut, has an impeccable sense of comic timing. The actor performs the role of an uptight but personable guy in a multi-dimensional manner that makes his struggle against peer pressure to dump Helen all the more compelling. Tom tends to hedge his bets, reluctant to truly say what he is feeling and allowing small lies to grow into bigger ones. His anxiety over his relationship is clear, as is his genuine affection and even love for Helen.

It helps tremendously that Piven and Atkinson have great onstage chemistry. The actress portrays Helen as outwardly confident, but both LaBute's writing and Atkinson's performance demonstrate that she is plagued by a nagging insecurity. Helen makes self-deprecating jokes, partly to defuse the effect of the ones that she knows other people tell about her. While Atkinson is a large woman, she's not so huge as to warrant the viciousness of Carter's and Jeannie's remarks. It might be interesting to see someone in the role who is grossly obese. However, the fact that Atkinson is merely plump gives a different sort of edge to the other characters' comments about her and makes their disdainful behavior even more unfair.

Keri Russell, Jeremy Piven, and Andrew McCarthy in Fat Pig(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Keri Russell, Jeremy Piven, and Andrew McCarthy in Fat Pig
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
McCarthy plays the role of a slimeball well, his performance never so exaggerated as to seem unrealistic. We all know someone like Carter, whose insensitivity does not result from malice so much as from a sense of privilege that makes him believe he's better than others. When Carter outlines his worldview that good-looking guys should not date ugly girls, you get the feeling that he believes this wholeheartedly and, in his own twisted way, is just trying to look out for Tom.

As Jeannie, Russell does well with the play's least substantial role. A little more information regarding Tom and Jeannie's prior relationship could have helped to clarify the character's motivations; still, Russell's brusque line delivery speaks volumes, even if it's hard to know whether Jeannie still has feelings for Tom or if she's merely pissed off that he didn't officially end their relationship before starting up with Helen.

The play is briskly directed by Jo Bonney. Louisa Thompson's set, with its gray, clinical appearance, nicely suggests the cold, impersonal way in which the characters often disregard other people's feelings. Mimi O'Donnell's costumes suit the characters' personalities as well as the situations in which they find themselves. Particularly effective is a sequence wherein Helen tries on different outfits as she prepares for an office beach party to which Tom has invited her. This is Helen at her most vulnerable: Wanting desperately to make a good impression, she silently wonders if she should try to hide her bulk.

The sheer number and viciousness of the fat jokes within the play will make you feel uncomfortable, but it's a profoundly theatrical discomfort. Fat Pig is one of the most thought-provoking new plays of the season, confirming LaBute's reputation as a writer who fascinatingly probes the bleaker aspects of human nature.