BORN FAT by Jacques Lamarre, directed by Steven Raider-Ginsburg and starring April Woodall as Elizabeth, is a 70-minute solo show based on “the life, fat and triumph” of Elizabeth Petruccione, author of the books You Were Born Fat and Losing Weight With Elizabeth. Presented by Scott Stephen Kegler for Fat Kid Productions at the tiny Jewel Box Theatre as one of the many offerings of the Midtown International Theatre Festival, now in its 17th season, BORN FAT is framed in the context of a self-help seminar, taking place in the basement of a church.
This seminar context is both BORN FAT‘s strength and its chief weakness: with some help from audio/visual and a couple of chairs and some suitcases, you could produce it anywhere. On the other hand, the material never really arises above the level of its context, the learn-to-lose-weight-seminar that would be entirely familiar to attendees of Weight-Watchers weekly meetings, and although it includes quite a bit of harrowing biographical material, provided courtesy of Ms. Petruccione’s personal trials and her life-long struggles with her weight, it nevertheless doesn’t quite rise to the level of must-see theatre. One can easily imagine that her books would make entertaining and enlightening reading material; but sporting a straight-ahead first-person narrative and absent the conflict that one normally associates with evenings spent in the theatre, BORN FAT comes across as an earnest, if slightly dull, lecture on losing weight.
Leaving the house lights on throughout the show is doubtless intentional but not very helpful in terms of lifting this experience out of the everyday. As soon as BORN FAT begins, the entire room remains fully lit and the audience is part of the action. Hands shoot up in response to the rapid-fire questions posed at the outset by Ms. Woodall. “How many of you are unhappy with your body weight?” “How many of you can’t stand to see yourself naked?” That sense of inclusion also means that the audience is always “present,” but at no time are we asked to distance ourselves from Ms. Woodall, and really watch her. We just happen to be in the same room with her.
She takes us on a journey that starts with taking out some suitcases, in this instance to illustrate the equivalent of the 93 pounds she lost: two check-in suitcases and a large carry-on, to be exact. Growing up fat, badgered by a mother obsessed with getting her daughter “skinny,” there are some uncomfortable stories of the indignities she suffered through. Twice a bridesmaid, she recalls her fellow bridesmaids waiting for her to arrive at a fitting for the final decision on which dress they will wear, because “if it looks good on you, it will look good on anybody.” The second time, she was the maid of honor, but was dismissed by the bride the day before the wedding “because the pictures are forever.” She is aware of how people react to her, like the face she notices her neighboring passenger make when she is getting on a plane and squeezing into an adjoining seat, or when someone gives her “that look” when she is in a restaurant eating an ice cream sundae. She reads their thought bubbles: Pig. Blimp. Whale. Fatty.
There is a litany of typical meals consumed, of course, and the variety of things she customarily indulged herself with are foods common to all of us: eggs, bacon, waffles, biscuits, lobster fra diavolo, beefy cheese tacos, mozzarella in carozza, deep-fried onion, steak and potato with buttery vegetables, double cheeseburger with fries, fried fish fillet sandwich, chocolate milkshake, grilled cheese, crispy fried chicken, peach cobbler, pineapple upside-down cake. I have to admit at times the relentless focus on food started to make me hungry, and the mention of grinders from Cavallo’s almost did me in altogether, but I also started to see her point; reliance upon food for nourishment, when it is lacking elsewhere in your life, is a trap that anyone could fall into.
Then there is the catalogue of the diets Elizabeth attempted throughout her long career in weight-loss adventures: the Fletcher Diet (chew 32 times, then spit), the Taller Diet (eat anything and chase it with vegetable oil), the Stillman Diet (or the Drinking Man’s Diet, also later known as the Atkins Diet and The Zone), the 1,000 Calorie Diet, Metracal, Slimfast, the Cabbage Diet, Benzocaine candy, diet pills, black beauties with time-release Seconal, Elizabeth has tried them all. And always gained the weight right back.
I won’t be giving away any plot spoilers by saying she has managed to keep the weight off by adhering to some simple tenets of common sense. You can’t take off weight one way and keep it off another way; you have to be consistent, and healthy in your outlook, and combine sensible dietary limitations with exercise. It is certainly worth noting that when Elizabeth finally lost 93 pounds, she did so at the rate of only half a pound a week. Do the math. It took over three and a half years.
The evening ends with some simple rules. Don’t diet, edit. Don’t put food in your mouth while there is already food in your mouth. Don’t eat any food someone hands you through a window. Words to live by.
BORN FAT by Jacques Lamarre, directed by Steven Raider-Ginsburg, starring April Woodall. Presented by Scott Stephen Kegler for Fat Kids Productions at the Jewel Box Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, fourth floor, Wed. July 20 at 6pm; Fri. July 22 at 8:15pm; and Sunday, July 24 at 1pm. For tickets and information, visit www.midtownfestival.org. For more on the play, visit www.bornfat.org.