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Liliane Klein, as Helen, and James Ryen, as Tom, star in SpeakEasy's ;Fat Pig'
Liliane Klein, as Helen, and James Ryen, as Tom, star in SpeakEasy's "Fat Pig." (The Boston Globe)
STAGE REVIEW

In provocative play, some weighty issues

The New England premiere of Neil LaBute's "Fat Pig" is an invigorating and persuasive production of a provocative and dispiriting play. Four gifted young actors execute their roles with conviction and skill, and SpeakEasy Stage Company supports them with an imaginative and thoughtful staging at the Boston Center for the Arts. And, at the end, I felt like throwing something.

I hasten to add that this is probably just what LaBute wants us to feel. The attitudes toward fat people that get expressed onstage are just as hateful and blatantly obnoxious as the title, and the twist is that we're supposed to find those feelings hateful -- even as we cop to them. As he shows us a buff young businessman falling for a fat librarian, then cowering at the disgusted amusement of his friends, LaBute seems to be asking, "Isn't this ugly?" Then he answers: "Yes, and this is how people -- all of us -- really are."

What's dispiriting is that he may be right. It may be true that, try as they might, men ultimately judge women on their looks above all. And maybe all of us, forced to choose between our true desires and what our friends think, would feel overwhelmed by our need for approval. But it's hard not to hope that he's wrong.

On a less philosophical level, it's also hard not to wish that LaBute had given his characters -- all of them, not just poor conflicted businessman Tom -- a little more room to change and grow. There's a whiff of the schematic to these folks: sweet, awkward Tom, drawn to vibrant Helen but scared of looking foolish; nasty player Carter, who'd rather taunt his friend than see him happy; bitter co - worker and sometime lover Jeannie, whose rage at being dumped for a "fat girl" is fueled by her own insecurities; and even big Helen herself, impressively confident at first but also weakened by self-doubt.

LaBute sets each one on a trajectory, and he or she pretty much follows it as you'd expect. The only real suspense is over whether Tom will develop a backbone or not, and the outcome is never really enough in doubt to make that truly suspenseful.

Even so, it's impossible to watch this production without getting deeply emotionally engaged. Liliane Klein is simply wonderful as Helen, with a wild laugh and a sturdy self-awareness that make her as deeply attractive to us as she is to Tom. James Ryen, meanwhile, is so gauche and uncomfortable in their first scene that you wonder if you're watching a stiff actor messing up or a terrific actor playing a stiff. (For the record, he's a terrific actor.)

Their interactions have the warmth, playfulness, and passion of a real love affair; Klein and Ryen do a beautiful job of showing how people can gradually shed their defensive shells, opening their hearts to both love and pain. Meanwhile, Laura Latreille's Jeannie and Michael Daniel Anderson's Carter stay wonderfully brittle and cruel; they're all shell and no heart.

Director Paul Melone gives all four actors the space and time to develop these characters richly. He's deft in handling transitions from one scene to the next, with Jeannie and Carter pulling furniture into position, manipulating Janie E. Howland's intelligently conceived scenery as expertly as they do Tom's emotions. Nathan Leigh's sound design adds an appropriate layer of menace, and Gail Astrid Buckley covers -- or uncovers -- each character with just the right armor, from business suits to bikinis.

So the play's 100 minutes pass swiftly, drawing us almost against our will into rooting for Tom to live up to Helen. We want him to see Helen's true beauty. We want him to be a braver man than he thinks he can be. We want the world to be better, more genuine and humane, than LaBute says it is.

Those are all fine things to want. So, in the end, if I were going to throw anything, it would be a bouquet.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

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