The Loneliest Whale in the World
nytheatre.com review by Collin McConnell
August 28, 2013
"Why?" is the question of the hour in Zoë Geltman's The Loneliest Whale in the World. The problem is, the play isn't asking that question - the audience is.
The premise itself - a young, overweight girl is disconnected from her family, a masochistic man is disconnected from, err, something (his life? his friends? his sexuality? himself?), and a pair of reporters are disconnected from one another, yet all converge over the strange story of a lost, lonely baleen whale off the coast of Babylon (...Long Island) - is asking a lot of intriguing questions. How are we isolated? How are we ostracized? What does it mean to love? And how, in this vast, lonely, confusing world, do we ever re-connect? These questions fall flat, however: just as the cry of the whale is blown throughout, though the animal is never seen, these questions sound off but with a hollow ring, as their substance, their basis for being asked, is never shown.
The major issue is lack of substance; there isn't much in the play to hold up any of the ideas it tries to grapple with. This is not the fault of any one element: while the play itself seems eager (perhaps too much so) to ask rich questions regarding how we treat each other, the artists - writer, director, actors, and designers all - seemed to want to not ask any questions of themselves and their work; no one seemed to be holding themselves accountable for the work they were making. Thus, lack of substance. The girl's home life is rough - why? ("The teenage daughter is overweight" is not an answer); the man is compelled to torture himself - why? ("He's driven mad by how dissatisfying this pathetic existence is outside of his Ivy League education" is - for the love of all that is good in the world - not an answer); the news media finds it absolutely necessary to distort and mock the world around it - why? (...this, I'll concede, is a valid argument to raise, though the reason for it here is very unclear - why, for example, do the news anchors opt to pronounce "Long Island" as "long eye-LAND"? or "Babylon" as "babe-Y-lon"? And subsequently, why does one anchor decide to stop doing this about halfway through the production? It unfortunately appeared to me as though the actor - Neil D'Astolfo, who does deliver one of the more enjoyably committed performances of the evening - was tired of making a choice that didn't make any sense, and so simply stopped.). At every turn, I found myself questioning every choice made, and not simply finding unsatisfactory answers, but finding no answers at all. Why is the girl's relationship with her mother bad? Where is the father? What is the relationship between the masochist and his roommate? Where do they live? What is the rift between the anchors? Why is there a whale in this play?
Consistency is also a major player in why this production struggles to keep its head above water. As far as 'style' goes, is this a kitchen sink drama, or is it existential meta-theater? Or is it attempting a melding of the worlds? The fusion which is maybe occurring here is strange and uncomfortable - Julia May Jonas, as director, seems terribly unsure of what she is trying to accomplish, what she'd like this play to be. And, as amusing as it was to watch, why is the news anchor on-the-scene at one point only able to communicate in interpretive dance? The decision behind most choices is difficult to discern. Why opt to show the bloodletting with the masochist but not the beached whale? What is the difference here between what is seen and what isn't? Unfortunately, it seemed like shock-value won out over creative storytelling.
And casting. Casting, casting casting. Please, if one of your main characters is an overweight teenager (and the point is she is overweight), do not cast a cute, thin girl and think dressing her in an over-sized hoodie and sweatpants will do the trick. It doesn't, and it is offensive. While Elizabeth Spano is very talented and made some of the strongest choices in the show, there are so many actors of all varieties (shapes, talents, sizes, etc.), I see no reason why one should not cast appropriately. When the mother told her daughter that she thought she had an eating problem, I was genuinely confused as to whether they were talking about obesity or anorexia.
Theater is about the experience. The experience here is muddy, clouded, uncertain of what it wants to tell me and leave me with. And the big ol' beached whale in the room is that pesky question, why?
- Presented as part of the 2013 Dream Up Festival at Theater for the New City