nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
November 3, 2012
A lot can be said for a playwright taking a well-worn topic, like the deathbed reconciliation, and making it seem like it’s never been written before. So, special applause must go to Samuel D. Hunter for his gut-wrenching, funny-devastating new drama The Whale, now running at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater. Taking place over the span of a week, The Whale partially documents the deathbed reconciliation between Charlie, a man so deeply unhappy that he is willing to be his own personal accomplice to his agonizing, tortured demise, and Ellie, the similarly unhappy 17-year-old daughter he hasn’t seen in over a decade.
Charlie, played by the towering giant of an actor Shuler Hensley in a truly amazing performance, is a 600-pound reclusive gay man who bides his time with dictating online college courses in expository writing. Despite the urging of his best friend (and nurse) Liz, Charlie, whose girth keeps him confined to his living room and occasionally the loo, refuses to go to the hospital when his blood pressure reaches deathly digits. Instead, he calls his estranged daughter Ellie and attempts to reconnect.
Buried under a massive fat suit, hobbling with a walker around the tight quarters of scenic designer Mimi Lien’s junkyard of an apartment house, Hensley disappears into Charlie, who essentially lost his will to live after his Mormon partner Alan died a decade earlier under vague circumstances. When Charlie calls Ellie – the only other person who gave his life any sort of meaning – he finds a miserable, sharp-tongued seventeen-year-old, who could end up bringing him the absolution he needs.
Under the unflinching direction of Davis McCallum, The Whale is a harrowing, whole tissue box experience, as raw as pulling off a band aid, in your face and uncomfortable to watch (in the best way possible). The company he has assembled to bring Hunter’s unsettled territory to life is better than first-rate. Reyna de Courcy is fiercely funny and dry as Ellie; Tasha Lawrence is perfectly abrasive and quite moving as her mother Mary. Cory Michael Smith is adorably befuddled as a Mormon missionary (with a secret or two of his own) that attempts to convert Charlie. And Cassie Beck, as Liz, Charlie’s savior and enabler, who yells at him to go to the hospital while still providing buckets of fried chicken and large meatball heroes with extra cheese, is just thoroughly heartbreaking.
Hunter, ably aided by costume designer Jessica Pabst and lighting designer Jane Cox, revels in the shadows of motive and ulterior motive. Each character has his or her own reason for helping and hindering Charlie, and Charlie himself never quite explains why he’s so intent on dying. But in life there are no easy answers, and Hunter hasn’t provided any. The knots aren’t tied at the end, and the impact, is of mammoth proportions.