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The title is certainly a provocation, but the play Neil LaBute calls Fat Pig turns out to be an oddly careful and sentimental romance. Hard to believe one of our most polarizing playwrights has penned a show in which the protagonists are bright, empathetic, and well-meaning, the villains are clearly identified as jerks, and the central question is not how vicious folks with a lean and hungry look can be, but whether love is really blind.

Might we have misjudged the dark lord of contemporary drama? LaBute, remember, is the guy who depicted the battle of the sexes in take-no-prisoners terms in In the Company of Men. And though that 1997 film found him wielding the male psyche as a misogynist weapon, he has since established—in such equal-opportunity slugfests as Bash: Latterday Plays and The Shape of Things—that there need be nothing gender-specific about emotional cruelty.

If Fat Pig doesn’t quite show off a chirpy LaBute, it does at least hold out the possibility that the love of a good woman might redeem a man, provided he’s man enough to love her Rubenesque figure in a carb-conscious world. This is hardly a heavyweight philosophical notion, but it does represent a new tack in a playwriting career that has previously been concerned with exploring malice in all its forms.

As the lights come up at the Studio Theatre, we see Helen (Kate Debelack), an attractive, decidedly ample librarian, eating at a stand-up table in a crowded Manhattan restaurant. She raises a slice of pizza to her lips, and we’re invited to judge her by the pile of wrappers, the garlic bread, and the two containers of chocolate pudding on the table before her. Then slender, business-suited Tom (Tyler Pierce) enters with his salad plate, she makes space for him, and within a moment or two, they’ve connected. She’s warm and playful; he’s personable and a bit clumsy socially, thoroughly mortified when the subject of her size comes up in conversation. He’d said “pretty big” about the restaurant as he entered, and he’s appalled that she thought it a comment about her. But she jokes and he relaxes, and by the time they part, it’s clear they’ll see each other again.

The scene then shifts to Tom’s workplace, where a judgmental co-worker named Carter (Jason Odell Williams, looking and sounding uncannily like a young Alan Alda) and Tom’s soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, Jeannie (Anne Bowles, a blond knockout in stilettos), snarl jests of a much less friendly nature. Carter is a committed fat-hater (even sensing sag in Jeannie’s admirably tight glutes) and a conventional LaBute sadist, while Jeannie fancies herself a woman wronged. Both of these sharks sense blood in the water when Tom comes back from lunch in high spirits, so it’s easy to understand why he doesn’t tell them about Helen.

Thereafter, the play bounces between scenes of Tom being hassled by these creeps and scenes of the persuasively blissed-out couple getting to know each other. They do seem genuinely love-struck—whether in a postcoital moment in bed watching the war movies that Helen adores or dining on the yellowfin tuna that Tom jokingly refers to as “the biggest-boned of the tuna family, with a hearty, heavy flavor some might even call jolly.” To Helen’s great relief, he’s loosening up, but she also notices that they seem to spend time together only on their own, in private, without friends. And she’s perceptive enough to worry about what that isolation says about their relationship. Though Tom murmurs all the right things, both to her (“I haven’t felt this way for a long time…ever, probably”) and to his co-workers (“Just leave us alone”), trouble is clearly brewing.

Having stacked the deck by making his title character and her lover sensitive human beings while making their tormentors nasty caricatures, the playwright has pretty much ensured that the audience will want Tom not to care what anyone else thinks of the bodaciously curvaceous woman for whom he’s fallen. But LaBute also knows that it’s one thing to maintain this notion in the abstract and another to confront prejudice in oneself, which is what he invites audience members to do when he continually alternates scenes featuring the toned, firm bodies of Tom and his co-workers with an increasingly unshielded Helen. The final scene is set at a beach picnic with everyone in bathing suits, and Helen and Jeannie look unnervingly like one of those before-and-after Weight Watchers ads come to life. The image is striking, and if program-rustling and murmuring in the auditorium is any indication of discomfort, much of the audience found the forced contrast unsettling.

All of which makes a number of points about our calorie-counting era and the social attitudes behind its vision of beauty. But what’s unusual about LaBute’s approach to a story that otherwise fits neatly with his previous work is that in Fat Pig, he’s less interested in malice than in the inadvertent cruelty of people who hurt each other with only the best of intentions. In a sense, he’s exploiting virtuous weakness in the way he usually exploits malevolent power, and in doing so, he’s investing frailty with more nuance than he ever has. Tom’s chief fault, for instance, lies in his always being kind. It’s what got him in trouble with Jeannie—she correctly pegs him as a wuss for trying to spare her feelings while breaking up—and what leads him to shield Helen. Hell, even Carter’s unpleasantness turns out to have its roots in adolescent pain. It’s a kinder, gentler misanthropy.

Not that this makes things any easier for theatergoers, who are still left watching articulate, amusing people get the emotional crap beat out of them. Paul Mullins’ brisk, confident staging makes sure that every blow connects by punctuating scenes with angry, crashing chords and even gunshots (those war movies, remember). The office scenes may crackle with caustic laughs—nobody writes peer-pressure hostility like LaBute—but Mullins knows the production will hook the crowd with the romance, anchored as it is by Debelack’s radiant, natural, palpably vulnerable Helen. She’s not just appealingly sexual, she’s also the most centered of the characters, which makes her allure for Pierce’s alternately gallant and troubled Tom entirely understandable—and explains why he keeps struggling to grow a spine right up to the play’s final, rending syllable. As his co-workers, Williams and Bowles have to spend much of the evening striking one emotional note apiece—snarky for him, bitter for her—so it’s a relief that they and the director are able to find so much resonance in the few moments they’re allowed to express gentler sentiments.

With Fat Pig the opener for a LaBute festival that will involve three of Studio’s four performance spaces, the troupe has made sure the show looks as sharp as it plays. Designer Debra Booth brushes in expansive indoor spaces with little more than forced perspective, then whisks the characters to the beach with stage-wide projections. Kate Turner-Walker’s costuming doesn’t just reinforce character; it charts romantic progress. Helen first appears in a career woman’s slimming, layered, long-skirted ensemble with her hair pulled back tightly, relaxing into a more voluptuous look as she falls in love. Equally helpful are Neil McFadden’s sound design, which surrounds a single midstage table with cacophony enough to let you see the crowded restaurant of which it’s a part, and Michael Giannitti’s increasingly unforgiving lighting. No expense has been spared to make Fat Pig a dramatic feast—and for once with LaBute, its appeal isn’t limited to patrons who are gluttons for punishment.

Almost everything about the American Century Theater’s Spoon River Anthology feels as unfinished as the lives of Edgar Lee Masters’ characters. If that had been a production choice, it might well have proved interesting. The rural folks who speak Masters’ poems are, after all, spinning their stories from beyond the grave, and a director who could find a performance parallel for being cut off in the prime of life would be halfway to making the show work.

Alas, at Gunston Theater II, the evening’s unfinishedness smacks only of too little time spent on theatrical basics. Performers who’ve memorized lines but haven’t yet gotten past the urge to declaim them, say. Or heavy woolen costumes with seams ripped and holes cut too neatly, as if they’ve gone through only the first stage of a weathering process that could have made them look lived-in (and died-in) had it only been completed.

Director Shane Wallis writes in a program note that he’s been itching for a decade to stage the 1963 recital that Charles Aidman crafted from Masters’ 1915 poems, which suggests that the material speaks to him emotionally. But as his performers spout verse about “this humorous thing called life” while writhing, skipping, staggering, standing atop stumps, and parading in circles in what looks like an overlit Luray Caverns antechamber, there’s no indication that the plain-spoken intimacy of Masters’ words is what inspired him.

Precious few lines get inflected in a conversational way, and the director’s visual notions tend toward the lamely decorative (a gambler flicking cards), or the ill-advisedly symbolic (bolts of cloth sewn wing-like into the upper backs of the costumes). Neither serves the writer nearly so well as making his words sound natural would.CP