Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Theater Review: The Whale

Honest,  Gripping Performances Harpoon a Whale of a Play
By Lauren Yarger
Samuel D. Hunter's play The Whale Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons features a hate-filled person obsessed with killing a sperm whale , but in this "Moby Dick" inspired tale, Ahab is a pint sized daughter and Moby is the 600-pound man who provided the sperm for her birth, but who hasn't there for most of her 17 years. And in this case, the whale is happy to help in the kill.

Charlie (a marvelous Shuler Hensley), so grossly overweight that he barely can move off the couch in the untidy living room of his northern Idaho apartment  (Mimi Lien, scenic design), makes a living teaching online classes in expository writing and grading the mostly horrible essays written by his students on things like "Moby Dick."

He has few visitors, but good friend and nurse Liz (Cassie Beck) stops by regularly to bring food and check on his health, which is deteriorating. Without health insurance, Charlie refuses to go to the hospital for treatment of the congenital heart failure that frequently brings chest pain and shortness of breath.

During a particularly bad attack, while Liz isn't around, Charlie gets help from an unexpected visitor: Elder Thomas (Cory Michael Smith), a Mormon making door-to-door calls as part of a mission for his church. When Liz arrives, she makes it clear that Thomas' religion isn't welcome. Turns out Liz is a former Mormon and so was Charlie's late boyfriend, Alan, whom she claims, was killed by the church. Taken aback, Thomas leaves, but a hint that Charlie might be interested in talking about the church's beliefs prompts him to stop back a few more times. The young Mormon is convinced that, in the face of impending death, Charlie needs to hear about religion more than ever.

What Charlie really wants, however, is to spend some time with his daughter, Ellie (Reyna DeCourcy), whom he hasn't seen since she was 2. Suspended from high school for making "vaguely threatening" remarks about a classmate on her hate blog where she trashes everyone and everything, Ellie shows up at Charlie's doorstep spewing more contempt (made plain in DeCourcy's unwavering body language and facial expressions) and showing no sign that she wants to establish a relationship with her father:

"Just being around you is disgusting. You smell disgusting. Your apartment is disgusting. You look disgusting. The last time I saw you, you were disgusting," she blurts.
Discovering that she is flunking out of school, Charlie strikes a bargain with Ellie and agrees to pay her with his hidden nest egg to let him write her essays for her. Liz isn't happy with another interloper. She's convinced that she's the only one who can care about or care for Charlie. She proves this by providing CPR to save him after he chokes on one of three meatball sandwiches she happily provides for him.
When Charlie's angry, alcoholic, ex wife Mary (Tasha Lawrence) finds out that Ellie is with her father, we almost can hear the cry of "Thar she blows!" Mary still obviously cares for Charlie, though she is shocked at the size of his girth. She admits that she is at a loss about how to control their cruel daughter who gets joy only by hurling verbal harpoons carrying barbs laced with vitriol.

Not even she can get through to Charlie about taking care of his health, however, as it becomes apparent that his weight gain is a self-imposed suicide attempt in response to the mysterious events around his partner's death.  

David McCallum's razor-sharp direction enables all of the actors to give multi-layered, moving performances of characters who often surprise us by turning out to be different from our first perception. Hensley is superb, mastering not only the emotional side of Charlie's pain, but also his physical limitations, including an alarming wheezing, while costumed in the realistic padding of Jessica Pabst's costume design.

Reminding us of the allusion to that other whale is the sound of the ocean under scene changes (Fitz Patton, sound design). Jane Cox designs the lighting.

Hunter's script, needing very few tweaks, is totally engaging despite the harshness of its topic. This is a "don't miss" of the early season.

The Whale plays a limited engagement through Dec. 9 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd St., NYC, between 9th and 10th avenues.

Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 and 7 pm with an additional Wednesday matinee performance on Nov. 21 at 2. Single tickets, $60 with some premium seats available at $72, may be purchased online via www.TicketCentral.com, by phone at 212-279-4200 (noon-8 pm daily), or in person.

Christians might also like to know:
-- Language
-- God's name taken in vain
-- Drug usage
-- Homosexuality

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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