by Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Davis McCallum
Starring Shuler Helmsley
Playwrights Horizons
Peter Jay Sharp Theater

Reviewed by David Spencer

It’s exciting enough to come upon a really terrific play; but to see one that may well be a contender for the classic status of great American play provides a unique rush—and that’s the one that I, at least, thought I was having at The Whale, by Samuel D. Hunter at Playwrights HorizonsPeter Jay Sharp upstairs theatre.

                        It tells the story of Charlie (Shuler Hensley), a grotesquely, life-threateningly overweight man who is paradoxically, intellectually brilliant, and makes his living as an unseen, online teacher of English at the college level. Despite his depression, seclusion and self-destructive lifestyle, though, he somehow remains compassionate to strangers, grateful for those who care about him and hopeful about the potential of people to tap into the best part of themselves. And along with the layers of fat that encase his body, the layers of his emotional heart surround a number of secrets about choices he’s made and the people in his life.

                        I’ve elsewhere talked about plays that offer what I call imitation enigma, a pretense of indefinableness to fuel debate and discussion later. It’s a device that, when used in realistic drama (as opposed to theatre of the absurd and impressionistic theatre, and the likes of Beckett, Pirandello and Ionesco), almost always strikes me as the cheapest and laziest way to be mysterious about the unknown nature of the human soul, especially as pertains to perverse behavior. But genuine enigma—which is to say, dramatically speaking, a mystery about the human soul that will be revealed, in a worthwhile and satisfying way—is quite different, and it is that which Mr. Hunter offers here.

                       I’m loath to discuss too much about the other characters because to profile them too explicitly is to ruin your sense of discovery, so a perfunctory mention, just to highlight the extraordinary cast: there’s Liz (Cassie Beck) the registered nurse who is Charlie’s closest friend and caretaker; Elder Thomas (Cory Michael Smith) a young door-to-door spokesman for Mormonism who randomly appears to impart the Goddish good news; there’s Ellie (Reyna de Courcy), the estranged teenage daughter Charlie hasn’t seen since she was two; and finally his ex-wife Mary (Tasha Lawrence). They’re all splendid under the equally grade-A direction of Davis McCallum.

                     But it’s musical theatre mainstay Shuler Hensley—best known in NYC as a deeply disturbing Jud Fry in the last revival of Oklahoma! and as the highly goofy Monster in Young Frankenstein—who delivers the revelation. Encased in an unsettlingly convincing fat-suit, he delivers a performance of such power, sweetness and truth—emotional and physical truth—that it takes your breath away, even as it occasionally robs Charlie of his.

                        The Whale’s language doesn’t reach for the poetic heights of Williams or the epigrammatic resonance of Miller—except, arguably for a few passages in which such language is attempted as a consciously acknowledged example of what reaching for the heights might entail (Charlie is very concerned that we reach for the heights)—it mostly just employs contemporary idiom; but it does so with such unerring economy and precision, such clarity and insight, that it makes a grand case for the poetry of everyday speech.

                        As well as the fragile, needful value of even the most injured human spirit…

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