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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
With The Whale, Playwrights Horizon, one of New York's most prestigious, career boosting Off-Broadway venues, has once again given a playwright whose work has previously been seen only in less well-known downtown houses deservedly wider exposure. Like Hunter's Bright New Boise, The Whale is set in northern Idaho where the playwright him self grew up and again sensitively directed by Davis McCallum.
To boil the plot down to basics: Charlie, a 40ish gay man, who has allowed himself to become dangerously obese after the death of the partner he met while still teaching creative writing in a college classroom rather than through an on-line tutoring program. Despite his friend Julie's efforts to delay death by getting him into a hospital and Elder Thomas (Cory Michael Smith), a young Mormon missionary who wants to help him meet the Grim Reaper. But the only redemption Charlie wants is to reconnect with Ellie (Reyna DeCourcy), the teen aged daughter he hasn't seen since he and wife Mary (Tasha Lawrence) divorced fifteen years ago and who he hopes of keep her from destroying herself with anti-social, hateful behavior.
Shuler Henlsey who I first got to know as a musical theater performer. is a moving, and mesmerizing Charlie. Gone is the powerful voice of Jud Fry in Oklahoma.. His voice is weak and strained from his damaged heart. While you know he's wearing a fat suit since a real 500 or 600 pound man would also have rolls of fat around his neck and hands, but Hensley's every move and word make such details quickly forgotten. Just watching his agonizing struggle to lift himself off the couch to waddle to the bathroom with the help of a walker makes you catch your breath.
The whale-sized Charlie demonstrates this playwright's knack for creating characters who stick in your memory the way those hummable songs from Oklahoma stick to your ears. As the play progresses, this painful to look at and hard to relate to man affects you deeply with his desperate need "to, know I did one thing right in my life."
The other four character may not be as hopelessly gross and painful to watch as Charlie . But they too are desperate people who share his struggle for meaning and connection. Seeing how they all fit into what are almost sure to be the last days of Charlie's hermit existence makes for one of the more fascinating plays I've spent in a theater this season.
The family secrets revealed as the various characters wander in and out of his cluttered apartment (splendidly detailed by Mimi Lien) clarify what turned Charlie from a big but not abnormally sized man who enjoyed cooking meals probably a lot healthier than the take out junk food he's limited to now that he can't fit through the door of his kitchen any more. The misfits with whom Charlie' interacts during his ticking-clock attempt to get one thing right before his heart gives out are all portrayed with committed and very human performances,— but more than anything, this is the fat man's show .
Mr. Hunter’s also touches on issues of homosexuality, parenting, education. and religion. Much of the humor comes via young Elder Thomas who represents the religious issues. He arrives on scene just as Charlie is having a seizure as a result of watching porn on tv and masturbating. When Nurse Liz arrives and meets the young man we get the first clue about Mormonism's contribution to Charlie's story.
Liz, a long lapsed Mormon, confronts Elder Thomas with the following priceless little monologue that could well account for Mitt Romney's ability to flip flop from opinion to opinion during the presidential campaign whose outcome we'll know the day after The Whale has it's official opening and this review is posted: "I fucking hate Mormonism. How can you believe in a God like that? He gives us the Old Testament, fine, we’ll all be Jews. Then Jesus shows up and he’s like, 'Hey so, I’m the son of God, stop being Jewish, here’s the New Testament, sorry.' And then he shows up a second time, and he’s like, 'Oh, shit, sorry! Here’s this other thing, it’s called the Book of Mormon. And after all that, we’re still supposed to wait around for him to come back a third fucking time to kill us all with holy fire and dragons. I’m just saying, why would God not just give us all the right answers to begin with?" When Elder Thomas counters this last with "He has a plan," Liz' quickly comes back with "A plan that he’s constantly revising."
Despite the comic relief he provides, Hunter never makes Elder Thomas a caricature. He too has his dark and troubling side though how that dark side plays out is what makes The Whale as hopeful as it is tragic.
While the title is easily explained by its cynosure character's huge body, it has broader metaphorical implications — most evident in a passage from Ellie's eight grade essay on Melville's Moby Dick that haunts Charlie and finally helps him understand what destroyed his partner and might save his daughter. Of course there's the even more all-embracing metaphor. The way sermon on Jonah and the Whale triggers one man to starve himself to death and his grieving partner to feed himself towards the same end, might be seen as a symbol of how one part of the world population gorges itself into an epidemic of diabetes while people in poorer nations starve.
With so much to chew over, The Whale, is clearly a work that should be on any serious theater goer's not to be missed list.
Slings & Arrows- view 1st episode free
Anything Goes Cast Recording
Our review of the show
Book of Mormon -CD
Our review of the show