A morbidly obese man attempts to reconcile with his angry teenage daughter.
This is all I knew about Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale going in, and if you wish to be as blown away by this absolutely brilliant, unexpectedly funny, devastatingly powerful new play as I was, ask no questions. Simply reserve your seat at South Coast Repertory and let Hunter, director Martin Benson, and five phenomenal actors do the rest. You’ll thank me for not having given anything but this away.
The Whale of Hunter’s tale (though this is but one of the play’s title’s several meanings) is Charlie (Matthew Arkin), a 40something divorced man whose weight (somewhere between 550 and 600 pounds) and blood pressure (238 over 134 at last check) keep him housebound, attached by gravity and inertia to the sofa from which he does online tutoring, correcting high school students’ godawful expository writing. (“There were many aspects to the book The Great Gatsby. But I was bored by it because it was about people that I don’t care about and they do things I don’t understand. In conclusion, The Great Gatsby wasn’t so great, LOL.”)
Whatever Charlie’s life may have been like in the past, we soon realize that he’s down to only one friend, a nurse named Liz (Blake Lindsley) who alternately begs him to check himself into a hospital and brings by meatball subs and buckets of KFC. (Can you say enabler?)
With no more than a week or so left to live given his current weight, blood pressure, and a case of congestive heart failure, Charlie decides that it’s now or never to reestablish a relationship with Ellie (Helen Sadler), the teenage daughter he has not seen in fifteen years, not since he left her mother for another man.
Not surprisingly, reconciliation is the last thing his seventeen-year-old daughter has on her mind, not this rebellious monster of a teen whose “hate blog” is her very public way of telling mother and classmates to go fuck themselves.
Still, daughter does pay dad a visit, if only out of curiosity, and when he offers to pay for her companionship to the tune of a whopping $120,000, the small fortune his tutoring—and expense-free life—has allowed him to accumulate, Ellie agrees to take him up on his offer on one condition. Charlie must rewrite the essays she needs to submit in order to be allowed to graduate and he must “write every other essay for the rest of the semester. And they have to be really good.”
Ellie is not the only unexpected visitor to pop into her father’s life this week. Arriving to find Charlie wheezing and struggling for breath (a side effect of masturbating to Internet porn still on his laptop screen) is Elder Thomas (Wyatt Fenner), a nineteen-year-old Mormon on a mission. Obeying Charlie’s orders to read from a rather bad essay that seems somehow to calm Charlie down (an essay whose significance we will eventually discover), Elder Thomas is somewhat surprised—yet pleased and flattered—when Charlie agrees to let the young missionary come back and talk to him about his church.
Even more surprised (outraged would be the more appropriate term in her case) is Liz, who informs the Mormon lad that the his church has not only caused Charlie a lot of pain, “the Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saints killed his boyfriend.”
It’s Charlie himself who fills in the blanks about his deceased partner Alan, who, following his own mission abroad, had fallen for the slightly older college professor and abandoned the life and fiancée his parents had chosen for him, yet had never been able to rid himself of the ensuing guilt, guilt which eventually led him to quite literally starve himself to death. (Ironic indeed, since following his death, Charlie began to do precisely the opposite.)
When Elder Thomas expresses confusion as to why Charlie would want to know more about a church he blames for killing his partner, Charlie explains that the “church” he’s interested in is “the one by the U-Haul, by the highway,” the house of worship to which Alan had paid one last Sunday visit on his father’s request, after which “he just stopped everything. He stopped bathing, he stopped eating, he stopped sleeping. And a few months later, he was gone.” And since “Alan wouldn’t tell me what they did to him,” Charlie explains to Elder Thomas, “I was hoping you could find out.”
How about that as a setup for one the most riveting, potentially life-altering theatrical experiences you’re likely ever to experience?
If playwright Hunter’s name seems familiar to L.A. theatergoers, it’s doubtless because of his previous play, A Brand New Boise, one which generated considerable buzz at Rogue Machine a few months back, it too the story of a parent attempting a reconciliation with an angry young teenager and quite an extraordinary play in its own right.
The Whale is even better, and even more likely to grab you by the heart and guts and not let go.
It’s also surprisingly funny, a combination of Hunter’s way with words and the pitch-perfect performances director Benson has elicited from a couldn’t-be-better cast.
In “fat suit” and prosthetic makeup that make his transformation from actor to Charlie as visually believable as can be, Arkin gives a performance of such power and grace that it immediately qualifies as one of the year’s best. Never for a moment do you doubt that Charlie’s heft, his wheezing, his struggle to simply to rise from the sanctuary of his sofa, are real. And if Charlie’s heart is damaged beyond repair, never for a moment do you forget that there is a real, human heart still beating under “two feet of fat” and attempting against all odds to heal after having been broken into pieces.
Sadler positively dazzles as Ellie, a teen whose sheer awfulness provokes shocked laughter even as the amazing young actress lets you know that Ellie’s bravado hides some awfully deep pain. Spitting out angry, hurtful words like bullets (“You smell disgusting. Your apartment is disgusting. You look disgusting.”), Sadler is scarcely recognizable as last fall’s enchanting Imogen in A Noise Within’s Cymbeline, and her crisp English accent at Tuesday’s talkback makes her transformation into Ellie all them more astonishing.
Lindsley provides gritty, gutsy support as Liz, a woman whose love for Charlie may be both the best and worst thing in his life. Equally fine is Jennifer Christopher as Charlie’s ex-wife Mary, whose anger at the husband who left her for a man may remain unabated but whose affection for him and love for a possibly irredeemable daughter cannot be denied.
Last but not least, there is the extraordinary Fenner, whose three Scenie wins (for Dog Sees God, Misalliance, and Anita Bryant Died For Your Sins) have introduced Southern California audiences to one of our most gifted young actors. Fenner gives us an Elder Thomas whose sweetness and purity we take so much for granted that one of The Whale’s unexpected twists comes as quite a surprise indeed. Clutching his bike helmet like a child might his teddy bear (or Linus might his blanket) and wearing his faith as a protective badge, Fenner’s Elder Thomas is but one more unforgettable creation from an actor with quite a career ahead of him.
Though Hunter allows his characters to do a darned good job of demonizing each other, the playwright himself demonizes not a one of them, nor does he himself demonize the Mormon church (though he lets Liz do a darned good job of it when she tells Elder Thomas how it destroyed her brother’s life). At the same time, Hunter has Elder Thomas deliver a sincere and even moving explanation of what he feels makes his church so wondrous, and when Charlie says he’s read The Book Of Mormon several times, you sense that playwright Hunter has too. (Audience members who might suspect Hunter of not doing his homework in having Elder Thomas visit Charlie without the obligatory missionary buddy will find that there is a very good reason for this, just as there is in the F-graded Moby Dick essay Charlie takes such comfort in rereading.)
With writing, directing, and performances as powerful as those onstage at South Coast Rep, The Whale’s equally sensational design comes as icing on the cake, from the cluttered mess of an apartment scenic designer Tom Buderwitz has given Charlie, to Angela Balogh Calin’s character-apt costumes, to Donna & Tom Ruzika’s strikingly effective lighting, to Michael Roth’s original music and “soundscape,” which gives The Whale at South Coast Rep its unique audio underscoring, and not merely the ocean sounds specified in Hunter’s script. And special mention must be made of to Kevin Haney’s lifelike prosthetic design and supervision, which give Arkin’s Charlie a face and neck to match his body and not the thin man’s head sticking out of a fat suit that Charlie had in his New York debut.
Jackie S. Hill is production manager and Jennifer Ellen Butler stage manager. Casting of these superb L.A.-based actors is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA. Kelly L. Miller is dramaturg.
As Tuesday’s longer-than-usual talkback made abundantly clear, Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale is a play you’ll be talking about long after its final, dramatic snap to black. Charlie, Ellie, Elder Thomas, Liz, and Mary are characters you won’t soon forget, nor will you the play which brings them to indelible life.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
March 19, 2013
Photos: Scott Brinegar/SCR