November 7, 2012

Guest blogger Bill Sights "The Whale"

From Jan: Samuel D. Hunter knew that he was going to alienate some people by making a 600-pound man the central character in his new play The Whale.  As he told the online theater magazine TDF Stages,  “I wanted to set it up where the audience was keeping this character at arm’s length at first, and then gradually shrink that distance.” The problem is that the distance never shrank for me.  I just couldn't get past my discomfort with the character’s size.  That surprised me because I'm not usually a looksist and, God knows, I could stand to lose a few pounds myself.  But my visceral unease also made me realize that it wouldn't be fair for me to write about the play. Luckily I saw it with my theatergoing buddy Bill, who has agreed to share his less prejudiced view of the show with you:

I thought I knew what to expect from The Whale. In one major sense, I was right.  In most others, I was wrong—which, as this longish (one hour fifty minutes  when I saw it two weeks ago) one-act play unfolded, was what fascinated me.  Playwrights Horizons bills Samuel Hunter’s new play (first produced in Denver  and upcoming at Chicago’s Victory Gardens and California’s South Coast Rep) as  being about “a six-hundred pound recluse [who] hides away in his apartment  eating himself to death.” And yep, that’s what it’s about. 

PH also describes it, with what I took to be the usual hype, as “big-hearted and fiercely funny.” Yep again, that’s what I found it to beas well as eccentric and, ultimately and  unexpectedly, moving. In retrospect, I’ve come to think of The Whale as part of a trilogy of like-minded plays that I’ve very much enjoyed over the past six  months or so, each of which smartly, touchingly and with good will and great good humor focuses on a particular out-of-the-mainstream central character.   

 The other two plays in my make-believe trilogy are Nina Raine’s Tribes, whose central figure is a youngish deaf man, and Simon Stephens' The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, whose hero is a 15-year-old savant who attends a school for  special-needs youngsters and who appears to have Asperger’s Syndrome, though that phrase is never mentioned (to my recollection). Tribes has been playing in  Greenwich Village since March 4th and continues through January 6th. The Curious  Incident..., which just closed at London’s National Theater but is scheduled to  move to the West End in March, was screened worldwide recently as part of the National’s bargain-price, wonderful “live” commercial-movie-theater  program (for which I’ve become a shameless shill). I saw both of these plays  twice and liked each even more the second time.     

The playwrights of all three plays clearly want their audiences to regard their leading characters not with mere sympathy but rather to appreciate our commonality with them. Mr. Hunter, however, is aware that his grossly overweight Charlie, the titular Whale, presents an audience with particular challenges, as he explains in an audio interview that you can listen to here.

When I hear the word whale, I make three literary associations. The first is just a joke, from the musical Wonderful Town. Awkwardly trying to make party  conversation, one character says she’s been re-reading "Moby-Dick." Silence. “It’s  about this whale,” she continues, to no good effect. Well, Hunter’s The Whale also turns out to be partly about "Moby-Dick." And about the biblical Jonah, too  (he of the whale misadventure), in ways that become more and more clear as the  play progresses, though there are early references to each, both verbally and even visually, the latter in a subtle way that audiences should be allowed the pleasure of discovering on their own.        

Till now, I’d seen Shuler Hensley onstage only in musicals, but my gosh he’s an  accomplished “straight” actor. Wearing a huge “fat suit,” he makes Charlie into an appealing figureno small feat in playing a gay man so morbidly obese and slovenly that he chooses to make his living online, tutoring  young, mediocre students in the craft of essay writing, unseen by them and vice versa.    

Quite accomplished too are the other four members of The Whale’s small cast, playing the roles of Charlie’s estranged, hateful and hate-filled teenage  daughter (Reyna de Courcy, all angles and bile); his ex-wife (Tasha Lawrence, brusque but surprisingly sympathetic); Charlie’s best, perhaps only, friend and de facto caregiver (Cassie Beck, warmly direct); and a Mormon missionary (Cory Michael Smith, late of the needlessly salaciously titled Cock and quite nicely different here). 

As The Whale slowly unfolds, the latter two characters are revealed to have unexpected relationships to Charlieunexpected but dramatically credible.     

It’s that slow unfolding, though, that was for me the singular failing of this otherwise greatly satisfying play. Unlike Tribes and Dog in the Night-Time, which barrel along, The Whale takes its sweet time, a drawback in a play that sets up very little conflict among its characters to begin with. And when the  play finally yields its secrets, and its allusions to "Moby-Dick" and to the Jonah story are fully revealed, the revelations are a tad too cryptically brief to be  thoroughly absorbed and fulfilling. I could have used a little less “middle” and  little more “ending.”       

But along the way (as an essay by one of Charlie’s online tutees might have put  it), the time that I spent with Hunter’s characters gave me enormous pleasure  (pun intended). Individually they might seem to be potential clichés. But with empathy and expertise, Hunter has woven them into a rich, luminous tapestry.       


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