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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Weighing Romance

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 Playwright Neil LaBute first came to the attention of national audiences with 1993’s In the Company of Men, a successful play about a pair of misogynists looking to ruin the life of an innocent girl. Less than 10 years later, he turned the tables by telling the story of a female art student who makes a living work-of-art out of a well-meaning guy who thinks he’s dating her. A few years after that, he cast a more-intricate light into the heart of modern romance with 2004’s Fat Pig, a look at the romantic difficulties faced by two people from drastically different social strata. Renaissance Theaterworks concludes its season with a production of LaBute’s ’04 dramatic comedy, which opens this week.

 Chicago-based actress and playwright Tanya Saracho stars as Helen, an overweight librarian who begins the play talking to Tom, an attractive guy with traditional good looks and an upscale career played by Equity actor Braden Moran. The conversation leads to friendship and a series of dates. Before long, however, Tom begins to feel uncomfortable explaining his relationship with Helen to his office colleagues (played by Wayne T. Carr and Leah Dutchin). LaBute has been accused of giving very little depth to the two supporting characters, but Dutchin and Carr should be able to add some support. Of particular interest is Carr, an actor who has never failed to come across as a nice guy, in the role of a white-collar jerk.

 The contrast in appearances between Tom and Helen is crucial to the play’s visceral effect on the audience. Moran, with a face that has landed him a number of bit parts on television, is a solid choice for the part of Tom. He wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of GQ.

 Saracho, meanwhile, will have to work harder to make herself less attractive. While she isn’t as thin as many actresses, Saracho is an appealing presence, a successful, charismatic stage actress who co-founded and maintained an all-Latina theater ensemble in the competitive Chicago market. So she’ll have to downplay her natural charm, at least at the outset of the story, if the production is to stay true to the script. The character is supposed to be charming, to be sure, but there must be a surface-level unattractiveness in order for the play to make sense. Saracho’s personal experience may give her unique motivation for this role: In a past interview, she mentioned that her father demanded she get her stomach stapled at the age of 20. Her personal feelings about society’s fixation on weight should make for a vivid performance.

Fat Pig runs through May 18.