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Review: 'Fat Pig' lands with emotional power at Hudson Mainstage

A pitch-perfect opening scene earns the play instant credibility

Trying to be a better person might seem an unlikely motivator for the protagonist in a Neil LaBute play. Nevertheless, it’s the fulcrum on which “Fat Pig” pivots in a Hudson Mainstage revival that packs an unexpectedly emotional wallop thanks to excellent casting and a script that’s been fine-tuned by the playwright since the edgy comedy’s 2007 Geffen Playhouse production.

Direction by Alexis Jacknow (who recently assisted LaBute in directing “Reasons to Be Happy” for L.A. Theatre Works) earns instant credibility from the pitch-perfect opening scene, igniting romantic sparks in a funny, charming chance encounter between Tom (Jonathan Bray), a handsome and successful corporate type, and Helen (Deidra Edwards), an unmistakably plus-size librarian.

Attracted to Helen’s wit and self-reliance, Tom falls in love with her, but the acceptance and fulfillment he finds in their cloistered cocoon contrasts sharply with the harsh judgment and ridicule from his shallow co-workers — best buddy Carter (Nick Stabile) a superbly archetypal narcissistic, perpetually adolescent male, and resentful ex-girlfriend Jeannie (Kirsten Kollender), a svelte physical opposite to Helen.

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Torn between private happiness and public embarrassment, will Tom do the right thing? Don’t bet the farm — it’s a LaBute play. While the narrative arc hasn’t changed, the updated script intensifies the cruelty directed at Helen and deepens her self-awareness, which Edwards uses to great advantage. Bray likewise nails Tom’s initial likability that stumbles on feet of clay.

Jacknow’s staging effectively sketches broad contours though there’s room for more nuanced coloring between the lines. Amping Jeannie’s confrontation with Tom to 11 throughout makes her hard truths less potent than if she’d started in icy rage and built to an explosion.

Unlike the typical LaButean emotional battlefield strategy of mutually assured manipulation, the affection between Tom and Helen is genuine. It makes the corrosive impact of body image stereotypes all the more devastating when things are brought to what Edward Albee once called the saddest of all points — the point where there is something to lose.

 “Fat Pig,” Hudson Mainstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 1. $30. (323) 960-7788 or www.plays411.com/fatpig. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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