Routine Shockers

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.


W. Somerset Maugham was the Neil LaBute of his time. One hundred years ago, Maugham was well known in London as a novelist, but he also liked to write for the theater. His plays earned him a reputation as a controversialist—-he had a knack for whipping up light entertainment that would confront audiences with a slightly shocking truth. His play The Constant Wife depicts a married couple who after five years of bliss, as the wife describes it, "had a most extraordinary stroke of luck: we ceased to be in love with each other simultaneously." For a proper woman to speak so unsentimentally about marriage raised eyebrows in 1926 (when the play premiered); but what made Maugham's plays successful was not that they probed society's unpleasantries (no, playwrights like Shaw and Ibsen had done that earlier and better). What Maugham could do was make an utterly conventional--and highly commercial--play appear shocking and stylish.

It was a neat trick and Maugham performed it plenty. At one point, the West End had four of his plays running simultaneously; but yesterday's controversy is today's orthodoxy and most of Maugham's plays go unperformed and some are even out of print.

The one exception is The Constant Wife, which is performed with some regularity in the U.S. When it was first performed, it was a bigger hit here in the states than in London--thanks to Ethel Barrymore's Constance, the "Constant Wife" of the ironic title. Ingrid Bergman even played the role on Broadway during the 1970's and it was revived just two years ago in an enjoyable production with Kate Burton as Constance.

The success of that Broadway revival seems to be the motivation for the new Pasadena Playhouse production that opened last month. It has none of the same participants, but all of the same motivations: to somehow make this star vehicle work without a bona-fide star. Megan Gallagher is no Barrymore or Bergman...or even Burton, but for an actress who's mainly been on TV of late, she has a real stage presence and makes a commanding and convincing Constance.

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Across town, at the Geffen Playhouse, another lead actress is the best thing about a flimsy play that considers itself shocking. Kristen Vangness plays Helen a healthy, attractive woman who's only fault is that she can't fit into a size 4 dress--and doesn't seem to mind. In our "enlightened age," this makes her the title character in another ironically titled play, Fat Pig written by Neil LaBute. LaBute is the Maugham of today. Successful in another medium (film writing/directing...though he's also dabbled in prose), LaBute also enjoys writing for the theater. Like Maugham, he churns out shallow plays that appeal to middle class audiences looking for a dose of cynicism with their entertainment. Maugham gave Edwardian London light comedies of manners; LaBute gives contemporary America dark comedies of bad manners.

Fat Pig follows the LaBute pattern pretty closely: cruel, craven characters babble endlessly trying to hide how awful they are--then surprise! they do something even more awful in a big reveal that is rarely as shocking as Mr. LaBute seems to think it is. This formula is tweaked somewhat by the presence of Helen, who is presented as a one-dimensional, almost virginal, fawn. Luckily, Ms. Vangness succeeds in giving the role some rough, spiky humanity. Besides her, Fat Pig consists solely of under-rehearsed, underwritten slop.

Neil LaBute's Fat Pig wallows at the Geffen Playhouse until June 17; W.S. Maugham's The Constant Wife continues through this Sunday at the Pasadena Playhouse.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.