“I’m sorry.” That’s the pitiably defensive mantra of Charlie, a 600-pound housebound literature professor who teaches over the Internet in “The Whale,” Samuel D. Hunter’s disturbing new drama at Playwrights Horizons. As embodied by Shuler Hensley, encased in a body suit of unnerving size, Charlie is a curious mixture of crippling self-loathing and determined optimism, deep sadness and fierce love. He’s a singularly arresting character, and Hensley brings him to life in a tour de force performance of aching humanity.
I missed Hunter’s Obie Award–winning breakthrough play of last season, “A Bright New Boise,” but “The Whale” is ample evidence of his considerable talent. The script examines the events of the last week in Charlie’s life—he’s dying of congestive heart failure because he refuses to go to a hospital—as he tries to right the wrongs he has done to those he loves. There’s Liz, his caretaker, the sister of Charlie’s deceased Mormon lover, Alan, whose self-willed death prompted Charlie’s weight gain. There’s also Mary, Charlie’s ex-wife, and their angry-at-everything teenage daughter, Ellie, whom Charlie hasn’t seen since he left Mary for Alan when Ellie was 2 years old. Then there’s Elder Thomas, who while on his Mormon mission blunders into Charlie’s northern Idaho apartment just as Charlie is having what may be a heart attack and sticks around after Charlie, for reasons of his own, expresses an interest in the 19-year-old’s church.
Hunter writes sharp dialogue that can sting and evoke laughter, sometimes simultaneously. He doles out exposition craftily, keeping us constantly guessing and always interested in the relationships he depicts. Under Davis McCallum’s taut, perceptive direction, a four-person ensemble supports Hensley’s impressive turn with vivid, precise work. Cassie Beck is a riot of contradictory emotions as Liz, loving and protective one minute, verbally abusive the next (“You fat piece of shit….You’re worthless, Charlie, you know that?!”). Tasha Lawrence’s weary, bitter Mary is at the end of her rope with both her daughter and her ex-husband, yet Lawrence stresses her buried tenderness, especially in a long, lovely moment when Mary rests her head on Charlie’s chest, ostensibly listening to his troubled breathing. Reyna de Courcy is magnetic as the smart but lost Ellie, finding infinite variations on her monotonous anger, and when she finally cracks, moving. Cory Michael Smith gives Elder Thomas a decency and sincerity that belie stereotype while highlighting the character’s confusion and touching innocence.
Scenic designer Mimi Lien’s cluttered, battered apartment screams surrender, while Jessica Pabst’s contemporary costumes are resolute in their ordinariness, something that Jane Cox’s flat lighting reinforces. Cox also teams with sound designer Fitz Patton to create unsettling scene changes punctuated by the crash of waves and stylized blackouts.
Hunter’s climax is too predictable, both in what occurs and the attempt at transcendence, and having Charlie repeatedly insist that siring Ellie is “the best thing I’ve ever done,” especially when he’s had nothing to do with her upbringing, is awfully sentimental. But such flaws can’t beach “The Whale,” which is as original as it is provocative.
Presented by and at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., NYC. Nov. 5–Dec. 15. (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com. Casting by Alaine Alldaffer.
Critic’s Score: A-