Fat Kids on Fire
nytheatre.com review by Clinton Orman
September 22, 2010
Pipeline Theater Company's new production, Fat Kids on Fire, is a strangely sweet, maybe sentimental/maybe not coming-of-age story set in a summer weight loss camp for teenagers.
The play begins by introducing two teens, Bess and Claire. Claire is thinner than Bess and the power dynamic is clear. They encounter one another at the pool and Bess tries hard to get attention and friendship from Claire. We learn that both girls are going to camp for the summer—Claire to cheerleader camp, and Bess to… well, it's like an art camp, you see.
Actually it is fat camp, staffed by the hard-nosed drill-sergeant Nurse Joy and the sweet and hunky young assistant Mark. The camp is populated with a motley assortment of misfits and everyone takes to Bess right off the bat. In addition to three other young girls, there are two young men—a silent and sullen trenchcoat-and-boots type and the hyper-macho and hyper-ridiculous white wannabe-gangsta son of the owners of the camp, who manages to become Bess's "boyfriend" within minutes of her arrival, largely by not letting her get a word in edgewise.
Sydney Matthews plays Bess as sweet and bubbly, a bit shy and in the first act almost exclusively reactive to those around her. She is overwhelmed with all of the attention she gets at camp, something she is clearly not used to. It is immediately established that there is a pecking order at the camp, with a big and nutty girl named Cindy at the very bottom. Cindy is also aggressive and, along with a boyfriend, Bess seems to have immediately found a best friend as well.
The pecking order is embodied by a tradition of a ceremony naming one camper "Camp Princess" each summer. Immediately Bess is tacked as a favorite.
In Act Two Bess deals with the pressure of her new popularity and Claire the cheerleader appears as an apparition, giving Bess bitch lessons. Her character begins to find an assertiveness in this act as well, gradually giving in to the prodding of the Claire vision to start taking control of her situation, and to be more and more coy and catty.
The characters in the play are written and performed humorously—and, with the exception of the earnest young camp assistant Mark, they are all obnoxious. So much so that it may be just a bit hard to care that much about them. Playwright Bekah Brunstetter paints a picture of youth as obnoxiousness, along with the usual self-obsession, cruelty, and alienation. Bess seems to be a bit exempt from this, as naturally nice as she is, but as she begins to get assertive she definitely gets in touch with her obnoxious side as well.
In the end it might be more a "cruelty camp" that Bess experiences, a taste of power and a cautionary tale.
The play is executed well. I just had a couple of problems with structure and tone. I'm not sure the device of having Claire appear as an invisible friend works that well. It's as if she plays the cliche devil on the one shoulder, and Bess herself plays the angel. But the whole conflict is going on within Bess, and this device seems to take the focus off her character, as we become accustomed to looking at the physical form of Claire as a real presence.
Also, the tone seems to break up at a few points. The play sets up a fever pitch of nervous energy, which works, but sometimes when it breaks this to hit a serious note it plays a bit awkward.
Overall, I enjoyed the play. And that really is a great title.