You can’t avert your eyes from the central character in “The Whale” even if you want to. He fills a sizable chunk of the stage, leaving only a few times to use the bathroom.
Charlie is a gay man in his mid-40s weighing in at around 600 pounds and confined mostly to a sagging couch in the living room of a shabby apartment somewhere in the blank vastness of northern Idaho.
He isn’t a pretty sight. Played with arresting conviction by Shuler Hensley, he takes us beyond the patronizing sympathy we might feel for this freakish vision.
With his tiny, tousle-haired head bobbing and wheezing precariously atop a mountain of denim-swaddled flesh, Charlie breaks up the hours he spends teaching expository writing on line by watching porn and devouring fast food.
Most of his students are idiots, whom he nonetheless treats with compassion and only mild sarcasm.
When a submission strikes him as beyond redemption, he refers to a favorite essay about “Moby-Dick” whose author was particularly saddened by those boring chapters about whaling because “I knew the author was just trying to save us from his own sad story, just for a little while.”
Allusions to Jonah and the sounds of waves crashing intermittently through the play’s very long single act (not to mention a circular window at one end of the set), connect the dots between the whales, in case we missed the point.
So subtlety isn’t playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s strong point. Charlie is attended by his best friend, Liz (Cassie Beck), a nurse who insists he try to save himself, yet brings him doughnuts and meatball heroes; an earnest Mormon missionary (Cory Michael Smith); Charlie’s truculent teenage daughter (Reyna De Courcy) and, finally, the ex-wife (Tasha Lawrence) who still loves him, if dubiously.
Director Davis McCallum, who did a splendid job with “February House,” pumps some air into the gloomy business of “The Whale” with a sure, easy hand. The performances are grounded and Jane Cox’s lighting of Mimi Lien’s realistic set all play wisely against the depressing story at hand.
Most of all there’s Hensley’s deeply humane and engaging performance. “The Whale” has some of the schlock inevitability of “Leaving Las Vegas.” Charlie stayed with me for a good while, though.
Through Dec. 9 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-279-4200; http://www.ticketcentral.com. Rating: ***1/2
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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