Helen is smart, sexy, and confident enough to make light of her own weight. So it's not that surprising when a hunky businessman named Tom becomes infatuated. But all doesn't go smoothly in their relationship.
The 26-year-old Klein, who spoke before a recent rehearsal, loves this role.
"Helen has an incredible journey," says the Boston University graduate. "She's the only person [in the play] who's beautiful inside and out. It's interesting that she's the 'Fat Pig,' which is such an ugly, provocative title. I think it was a conscious decision to have the title be such a contrast to who she is."
Klein is carefully made up and dressed stylishly in black pants, red sweater, and white shirt. She's relaxed and laughs often. Like Helen, she can poke fun at herself. She declines to say how much she weighs, but admits to an 18-20 dress size and says, grinning, "I am heavier than anyone in the play, including the 6-foot-4 leading man."
She and her character share similar painful school memories, she says. Growing up overweight in Great Neck, Long Island, she had tough moments in elementary school, like when a boy at lunch said to her, a la Bart Simpson, "Don't have a cow, man."
"The way he was saying it, it was 'You're a cow,' " she recalls.
But Klein gracefully steers every conversation about her weight back into positive waters. "Everyone is made fun of as a child," she says. "That's one of the things Helen says" -- breaking into a line from the play -- 'lt's all shame when you're younger, isn't it? You hate how you look or sound or, you know, all that stuff that we go through as kids. But I'm pretty all right with who I am now. The trick is getting other people to be OK with it!' "
Klein says she is OK with her weight after years of battling it through diets, weight-loss camps, and pressure from her parents and doctors. And she hasn't let it get in the way. In high school, when she was 30 to 40 pounds heavier, she tried out for the football and basketball pep squad .
"The entire kick line was Barbie girls," she recalls. "I tried out and didn't make it the first year. But I did the next years. I was a high kicker, and I had pride that I looked like I did and got in."
Helen, she says, has a similar philosophy: "If I can do it at this size, hell, honey, I can do it at any size! That's one of the reasons she's so confident. She's learned through her life to find strength to do anything in spite of her size. She can do anything she wants to do, including date this totally hot guy."
But Helen's bulldozing-your-way-through-
"This is the first time she's fallen in love," Klein explains, "and the wonderful journey that she goes through is letting her guard down."
Tom, however ardent and caring when the two are alone, is reluctant to be seen with her in public. She notices; he denies. His ambivalence is stoked by two co-workers, Carter and Jeannie, who pitilessly tear her down when they corner him in his office. And if you know other plays and movies by writer/director LaBute, like "In the Company of Men, " you know he writes extremely well about men's cruelty to women. In "Fat Pig" he adds Jeannie, who is also Tom's former lover, to double the torment.
"I wrote it as a study in weakness," LaBute says by phone from his home in Los Angeles, "about a man trying to juggle two worlds. It resonates beyond the weight issue; it's symbolic of anyone who's been in a situation where they couldn't be completely honest."
In the preface to the play, LaBute states that he wrote it after struggling with his own dieting challenges.
"This remains one of the last prejudices that is largely accepted," he says by phone. "People always feel it's fair game to ridicule fat people, because they feel if you really wanted to, you could stop eating so much."
While Helen is vibrant and strong, LaBute didn't make her invincible. "Some of that self-security and self- deprecation really does mask a certain kind of insecurity," he says. "She's always quick to make the joke and point out that everything is OK. I think the saddest moment is when she says, 'I will change for you.' Tom doesn't deserve it."
"Fat Pig" had its world premiere in 2004 in New York City. In this production, directed by SpeakEasy general manager Paul Melone , Klein has some terrific costars: James Ryen plays Tom, the Elliot Norton Award-winning Laura Latreille plays Jeannie, and New York actor Michael Daniel Anderson is Carter.
Klein, who's been involved with theater since she was a child, says that her big commitment to it came when she watched her sister in a school production of "A Chorus Line." Klein wasn't allowed to be in it -- partly because her dance teacher didn't want her up there in a unitard, for her own sake -- but seeing the show became a life-changing experience.
While still in high school, she participated in several high-profile summer drama programs. She did a stint at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and graduated from BU in 2002 with a bachelor's degree in acting. Since then she's worked around the country, performing in the national tour of "Titanic" and acting at La MaMa E.T.C. in New York and in "Les Miserables" at Walt Disney World.
Klein says she's definitely lost roles because of her weight, something that has been frustrating.
"Part of me wishes I had listened to my parents when I was younger and wasn't so rebellious," she muses. "Then I probably wouldn't be the size I am. However, if I wasn't the size I am today, I wouldn't have the incredible experiences I've had. But it's not something I'm grappling with, nor have I decided to stay this size forever."
She attributes her acting success to her drive: "I always have been an overachiever, somebody who wants to prove something."
A photographer arrives and Klein picks up a twirly dress and strappy heels she's brought to change into. She adds, fervently. "I never want to leave this role. It's great!"
Catherine Foster can be reached at email@example.com.