Some Problems with Neil Labute’s “Fat Pig”
I held off writing this until today because Theater Horizon was performing Fat Pig in Norristown, and their production just closed over the weekend. I am trying to be considerate, because they worked hard, and the actors and actresses all did a fine job, and I didn’t want to detract from their business.
But Fat Pig is a terrible fucking play.
At first, I thought maybe I just didn’t like it. Maybe it wasn’t my thing, you know? But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think it’s just dumb. It’s a dumb, bad play. It’s actually a credit to the performers that it took me this long to come to that conclusion (it didn’t actually take me THIS long; I saw it last Monday, and had made my decision by about Wednesday. But still.)
Generally, when you look for what’s good in a play, you’re looking for the following things: an interesting theme, explored well; a plot in which a number of events occur; characters, all of whom have a variety of traits and qualities; and language which either expresses itself boldly and poetically, or else thrums with expectant subtleties. Fat Pig has none of these qualities, and seems instead to frantically avoid them.
The premise of the play is this: there is a woman who is nice and funny, but she is overweight and doesn’t care about it (Helen). There is a man who is boring but handsome (Tom). He dates the fat girl, suffers approbation from his co-worker who is a douchebag (Carter) and a woman from accounting who is an insane bitch (Jeanie). Eventually, he breaks up with her while crying. The end.
Of themes, the most apparent one is how we, culturally, treat the overweight. There is quite a lot of material to be mined here: how paradoxically we shame the fat while we encourage consumption. How we manufacture ideas — that weight is directly linked to health, for instance — to excuse our disgust with fat. How American culture is essentially bulimic, as it gorges itself on whatever is nearby, and then, overcome with guilt and shame, feels the need to purge.
In fact, this theme is explored only in the most bare of fashions — yes, Helen is overweight, but this play would have been almost identical if she had been: tattooed, black, one-legged, Episcopal, poor, ugly, or the daughter of Tom’s father’s mortal enemy. Actually, scratch that last one; it might have lead to drama, a feature of the theater which Labute avoids most intensely.
He does briefly flirt with the issue of bodily autonomy, and whether eating healthily is a kind of vanity, but that flirtation seems half-hearted. In the very beginning, the boring handsome man says to the nice fat girl (who is eating pizza) that it’s her body and that she can do whatever she wants with it. She asks him if he likes the bean sprouts he’s eating, and he concedes that she’s scored a valid point against him.
Of course, even the most basic reading of the lines reveals that this is not a valid point at all, which begs the question as to whether or not Neil Labute has given his own script the most basic reading.
There is a secondary theme which Labute mentions in his author’s notes — this one is about how far people are willing to go in order to stand up for what they believe in. A playwright might have explored this at length — considering both people who have stood up and those who haven’t, of what consequences each had faced, of what they had lost and gained, of how they had felt about themselves after. A decent playwright might even have shown a character develop in such a way that at first he was unwilling to stand up for his fat girlfriend, but then eventually was willing. A decent playwright might also have reversed it, showing a man standing up for his fat girlfriend at every turn, but eventually collapsing beneath the contumely of his proud co-workers.
Neil Labute explores none of these elements, instead showing a coward who remains a coward, a douchebag who remains a douchebag, a crazy bitch who remains a crazy bitch. The characters learn nothing, and the audience learns nothing, and the theme remains an offhand line in the program.
There is a third theme apparent in the play, which is that everyone (except possibly for fat people?) is a miserable shitbag. This theme also goes largely unexplored, and is simply taken as read.
There are some basic rules, agreed on by most anyone that cares about plots, about what a plot should consist of. The first is that at least one thing, and preferably several things, should happen. Technically speaking, this is a condition to be found in Fat Pig. But the second rule of plot is that the characters should do something, and Neil Labute does not permit his characters to do anything. They find out things, certainly. They say things, most definitely. But from the first action of the play — when the boring character and the fat character begin dating — to the last action of the play — when the boring character and the fact character stop dating — the characters undertake a grand total of TWO ACTIONS.
As for characters, the most damning things have already been said, but they are worth reiterating. The main character is named Tom, and his main feature is that he is boring. This is stated explicitly, by him, in the script. Helen asks him what qualities he has, and he says he has none. He is correct; he has no essential qualities except for the fact that he is heavily influenced by peer pressure, which is the sole point on which the play hinges.
He does not, over the course of the play, reveal himself to be clever, or funny, or nursing an old grudge. Nor does he reveal himself to be depressed, unhappy, profoundly curious, or notably incurious. He doesn’t want anything, nor does he not want anything.
His fellow characters are little better. He has a friend who, at first blush, seems like a douchebag. Over the course of the play, the audience discovers that he is, in fact, a douchebag.
This character has one speech, in which he talks about how his mother was fat and how he was ashamed of her; he has a second speech in which he says that people should stand up for what they believe it, but that won’t change the fact that society will shit on them. These are the only interesting things said by anyone at all in Fat Pig. The provide the most compelling evidence that Neil Labute, rather than simply failing to write a good play, has actually committed a crime against the theater: that is, he plainly knew there was a good play to be written, and he plainly had the means to write it, he just refused to do so.
There is another woman in the play — she is notably skinny, which is not actually a character trait — and she, in her first scene, seems like a crazy bitch who is obsessed with Tom. (If anything in Fat Pig could rightly be said to strain credulity — and so little actually occurs that it seems unlikely that there’s more than one element clamoring for that title — it must be this; who could possibly be obsessed with a person that literally has no discernible characteristics?). Over the course of the play, she reveals that she is a crazy bitch who is obsessed with Tom.
Helen is overweight, but is perfectly well-adjusted to it, and she is very humorous. Sometimes, a person turns to humor as a kind of defense mechanism — a response to low self-esteem. But it turns out that Helen’s humor is simply the result of her being funny. She also likes war movies, which hints at psychological depth: is there a hidden anger in her soul that finds expression here? A secret admiration for the harsh morality or strength of will that war movies idolize? No; apparently, she just likes them because she and her brothers watched them together while growing up. Nothing to see here.
Helen, in fact, despite being the eponymous Fat Pig, serves no purpose in the play except to perpetually forgive Tom for being a shallow coward, causing him to feel guilty for not introducing her to his friends. It is not passive-aggression, of course –that would make her relationship psychologically complex — she really does just genuinely forgive him. Consequently, she seems to be the other element of the play that defies credulity: not only is there one woman so obsessed with boring old Tom that she’s willing to do anything for him, there are TWO.
Finally, plays customarily occupy themselves in whole or in part with language, and that language is revealed in a variety of styles: sometimes poetically, sometimes realistically, but always interestingly. Labute defies custom by providing poetry that inserts itself clunkily into ordinary, every day dialog, and using realistic language only in as boring and banal a way as possible.
Twenty minutes of the play are spent with Tom and Helen discussing movies and why she likes them. These conversations quite skilfully mimic precisely the manner of conversation that two ordinary people might have with each other, and so were no doubt of great comfort to everyone who does not have their own friends with whom to discuss movies. The very opening scene takes as its material the most ordinary conceivable way two people could awkwardly introduce each other, and then proceeds in the most ordinary conceivable fashion. It is, literally, precisely the same scene as that boring time you met someone awkwardly at a coffee shop and maybe got their phone number, but never called them because you kind of forgot about it the next day. True to life, yes, but — STRANGELY ENOUGH — no less tedious to watch than it is to experience. Maybe that’s why you never wrote a play about it.
Is it true that Neil Labute is a terrible misanthrope? It must be, for what other reason could he have for so aggressively trying to bore his audience out of their minds?
In short: of all those things that one might expect to find in a good piece of theater — namely: theme, plot, character, and language — Fat Pig provides none in any considerable measure.
In the author’s notes, Neil Labute mentioned that, at one point, he had lost some weight. This resulted in him feeling better and being happier, but caused him to stop writing. So, he regained the weight, returned to misery, and wrote some more plays. When I read these notes, I wondered why he didn’t just stay happy and get a different job; after I’d seen the play and discovered that he had also written and directed the remake of The Wicker Man, I wondered why sensible theater-goers hadn’t gotten together and made him get a different job.