Some Problems with Neil Labute’s “Fat Pig”

Posted: May 3, 2010 in Braak, poetics, reviews, theater, Threat Quality

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.

Theme

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.

Plot

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.

Character

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.

Language

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?

Conclusion

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.

Advertisements
Comments
  1. Moff says:

    There is a third theme apparent in the play, which is that everyone…is a miserable shitbag.

    But we knew this theme was there, because it was a Neil LaBute script!

  2. katastic says:

    This is true of all of LaBute’s work, actually. He explores exactly four character archetypes, ever:
    1. Totally hot girl who everyone wants to fuck, who exploits that hot fuckability by being a totally sociopathic, raging bitch whose greatest pleasure is torturing men. We never learn why she’s this way! She just is, probably because all women are evil. See: Evelyn in The Shape of Things, skinnywhatsit in this piece, most of the hot young things in the Wicker Man.

    2. Nice girl who no one wants to fuck, because she is undesirable or fundamentally a needy, weak weeny. The Hot Fuckable girl inevitably stomps all over her as Nice Girl tears up. Because she has not much confidence, really! Because she is unfuckable/ not as fuckable. She is good-naturedly resigned to her lot in life! She can aspire no further, because she is not that hot, the worthless bitch!
    See: Jenny in the Shape of Things, Helen in Fat Pig, whatsherface in Reasons to be Pretty.

    3. Douchebag. He’s a complete jackass to everyone in his life, especially #4, the Nice Guy, and yet everyone wants his approval! Everyone covets his coolness! He’s somehow cool and sexy BECAUSE he’s a douchebag! Even the women who claim to hate him (see: Evelyn in the Shape of Things) secretly want to fuck him because his essential assholeness is sooooooooo appealing to us stupid-women-types, who just cannot help but cream ourselves at the sight of a big, strong, virile DOUCHEBAG. MMmmm, take me now, you meatheaded caveman! Because that’s what women crave, you see. Subconsciously. This character is Neil LaBute’s clearest projection of fantasy- you know this is what he fantasizes about while masturbating. Someone had an unresolved crush on/ jealousy of the football captain in high school, methinks. This character was originated and done much better by Kenneth Lonergan when he wrote Dennis in “This is Our Youth”, in which the character’s popularity was believable because they were in HIGH SCHOOL. See: Douchebag in Fat [ig, Whatshisface Douchebag in Shape of Things, Douchebag in Reasons to be Pretty.

    4. Hapless Nice Guy who aspires to be douchebag and is meant to be relateable but just comes off as jackass. Normally he’s victimized by women! Evil, evil women coming to screw him up. But really, he’s a totally spineless dude who is victimized by everyone throughout the play- by his best friend, Douchebag, whom he resents and admires, by Evil Fuckable Bitch, whom he desires and fears, and by Nice Unfuckable Girl, who takes an endless amount of abuse from him until he finally has masturbated out all of his neuroses, at which point she dumps him , leading every person in the audience to scream “FUCKING FINALLY!” inside their heads. This character is meant to be sympathetic, but in fact is just a shitty, self-pitying vomiting of LaBute’s own self-loathing on the page, creating one-dimensional characters who are about as self-aware as brick walls. Just because you can acknowledge that your views are those of a weak-minded asshole doesn’t make you less of an asshole, Neil. See: every protagonist he’s ever written.

    I fucking hate Neil LaBute. Can you tell? I was in the Shape of Things in college. Being a woman in one of those roles is a nightmare; everything makes sense up until a certain point, and then your character does a complete 180 to fit the playwright’s stupid specifications.

  3. josh says:

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!
    Labute’s entire–I use the word hesitantly–opus, both in film and theatre reminds me of a play that I wrote once after spending a semester of undergraduate school studying Jung and archetypes. I am a terrible playwright.

  4. dagocutey says:

    @katastic: Um, so, what do you really think of LaBute?

  5. Sam says:

    LaBute is multidecade-long car wreck at 25mph. There are bruises, sure, but the injuries aren’t even very interesting or shocking. It’s just a pain in the neck.

  6. George Spelvin says:

    I wholeheartedly agree.

    People compare LaBute to Mamet because both seem so entirely rooted in the ‘masculine perspective’– a point that is very much open debate in terms of what exactly is meant by it and whether or not the claims contained in those meanings are true– but structurally, the differences are glaring. Where Mamet’s linguistic herky-jerkiness, clipped interchanges, and self-interruptions illuminate clear, critical shifts in thought, beat by beat, Labute’s feel entirely arbitrary to me. There’s no poetry in his percussives.

    And, can I just bitch a minute and say that the people where I work and study are fucking obsessed with the guy? If I never have to work through in (or have to guide young, hapless, would-be actors through) one more chunk of vapid, haphazard LaButian text in my life, it will be too soon.

  7. George Spelvin says:

    (Oh, unproof-read block of text, how you plague me, post after post.)

  8. braak says:

    Yeah, you know, academic theater always seems to me to run about ten years behind the times. Labute, with his pointless cynicism and his half-assed attempts to seem insightful just seems so late nineties to me. His work is badly dated, and in a way that I can’t imagine ever becoming nostalgic for.

  9. George Spelvin says:

    So I should be working with students on AUGUST, OSAGE COUNTY in the spring of 2020, then. I’ll pencil that in.

  10. V.I.P. Referee says:

    “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.”

    Right there. That’s the damage. It’s like there’s some conflict of interest between both sides of his brain. If losing weight “resulted in him feeling better and being happier”, how could such a radical change in self perspective not be worth investigating? How could such a personal shift not be creatively informative in some way? But this seems to be his regular gig:

    “Stuff just is. Whatever. Look at it. Heavy Neil = Writing. Not heavy Neil = No writing. This just is. Because I said so.”

    Maybe this all goes back to the “Dada”/”No, Dada! Bad!” conversation. My neurological pathways must not be woven tightly enough to catch whatever he’s trying to throw at me. Mostly, I think it’s just bullsh*t. But you never can tell. And he certainly won’t offer any opinion on it.

    Okay, on “The Shape…” and “Evelyn” (uggggh) in particular: Backstory isn’t always necessary–a lot of explaining, isn’t always necessary–but there has to be some acknowledgement of the evolution of such a character. Humans do have motives. Even sociopaths. Really. It seems totally self-indulgent to create a character that’s such a vortex of emptiness and offer no explanation for them–at all–just because you can. F*@k you, Labute! Fool me once, it’s your fault, fool me twice…

  11. Elizabeth says:

    You are REALLY over simplifying this play… do you want playwrights to spoon feed you backstory, or can you manage to wake up your brain and do it yourself? Be an engaged audience member?

    Apparently not.

  12. braak says:

    Apparently not indeed!

    So, your theory here is that the failures of Labutte to develop Boring Tom and the Crazy Chick are not failures on Labutte’s part at all, but are actually MY failures as an audience member — that I just wasn’t listening hard enough.

    You’re suggesting that there is, in fact, a secret depth to these characters that I am, ignorant and half-assed audience member that I am, unable to apprehend because it isn’t spoon-fed to me.

    Please tell me, then. I would prefer to enjoy every play, especially the ones I have to spend a lot of money on, so if you’ve got the special answer that makes this (seemingly!) crappy script into something transcendent, I’d be overjoyed to hear it.

  13. […] but at least I have the good sense to recognize my bias against LaBute:  I hate him.  I hate his writing, I hate his directing, I hate every comment he’s ever made in public, I hate his stupid face. […]

  14. George Spelvin says:

    Chris, can you either delete my comments from this thread or change it so that my last name doesn’t show? When you google me (as I imagine prospective academic employers will) this comes up as, like, the third hit.

    thanks, G

  15. Moff says:

    Change it to “G S_______, Office Supply Thief”!

  16. braak says:

    It is important for people to know your opinions about Neil Labutte, stranger whose real name I do not know.

  17. Through LaBute’s writing, it appears to me that he believes our American society produces people, men especially, who are not capable of emotional depth. And straight women who believe they must do whatever it takes to securely attach themselves to said men if they wish to be ‘happy’ and ‘accepted’.

    LaBute also believes, in my opinion, that there are those rare women (i.e. Helen in Fat Pig) who are beacons of hope. Women who, for the most part, live life truly being themselves. Not completely exempt from the pressures, but predominantly choosing their own path. They are the lighthouses that adrift American ships would do well to notice and gravitate toward. Hope.

    As far as the Tom character goes, I believe the actor and the director have the responsibility of making his struggle to activate himself, to come alive happen on the stage.

  18. Vanessa says:

    My sister and I are on the way home from seeing this play, and are relieved to see that we are not the only ones who thought that was literally the worst thing we’ve ever seen. The absolute worst, most pointless play, if you would even call it that!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s