2005_01_artsfatpig.jpgPop culture is really paying attention to those of larger dimensions and girth lately. We have had reality TV's take on this with The Biggest Loser, and a Gothamist fave Rescue Me has had a featured storyline between a fireman dating a largish gal, to the disdain and ribbing by his crew. Now off- Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, we have that same actress (Ashlie Atkinson) in a similar role as one of the stars of the riveting new play Fat Pig by Neil LaBute (The Shape of Things, bash, The Mercy Seat).

After missing previews due to a hectic pre-Xmas period, Gothamist finally saw this show a few nights ago. The New York critics had generally raved, so getting tickets turned out to be harder than we ever would have imagined. But we are so glad we waited in the cold and got in on the cancellation list.

But there's some bad news: Jeremy Piven is brilliant in this play and tonight is his last performance. That said, the good news is, the play is so damned good that you should try to go see his replacement Steven Pasquale (also of Rescue Me).

Piven's character Tom is surprised to find himself attracted to the smart and witty - but very overweight - Helen, a 30-ish librarian he meets during his lunch break. To the chagrin of his work buddies Carter and Jeannie (respectively, Andrew McCarthy of Brat Pack fame, and Keri Russell of TV's Felicity), Tom becomes seriously involved with Helen.

But he can't shake his feelings of embarrassment about dating a larger woman. Carter and Jeannie are mercilessly crass and cruel to Tom, feeding his insecurities. Carter is so shallow and judgemental towards women that he even finds the rail-thin Jeannie to be imperfect by his standards. And Jeannie, who had previously been involved with Tom in a brief relationship, takes it totally personally that there is a possibility Tom could find possible happiness with someone she deems to be a "fat bitch." Her sentiments are simply based on seeing Helen's photograph (which has been plastered all over the office and company website by the despicable Carter).

Will Tom submit to his friends or take a chance on happiness with Helen? Anyone who knows LaBute's work will probably have their own ideas going in. We knew what to expect, but were still devestated at the outcome.

The show is extremely well cast, with Atkinson playing the title role with charm, poignancy and depth. McCarthy is perfectly smarmy and bile in a role somwhat remnicent of his best friend "Stef" in Pretty In Pink - the James Spader role. Russell surprises as the acid-tongued, very jealous Jeannie - we never got to see the dark side on Felicity that she exhibits here.

As for Piven - we write this personal plea: We know you have to leave now to get back to the Entourage set, but please come back soon. New York theater needs actors as genuine and engaging as we found you in Fat Pig. Tom's flaws seemed sadly real, and at first he seemed so different from Carter. We greatly admire the way the real Tom started to emerge from Piven's nuanced performanced.

This is a tough ticket, so call right away if you have any intention of seeing this before it closes on Feb. 26th, which has been announced as the final date of its second extension. And Kerri Russell fans should take note that she is leaving the show on Jan. 15th.