Beauty and the Beast: The Heiress is a Bore, but Hensley is Monstrously Titillating in The Whale

whale171rsc e1352239798551 Beauty and the Beast: <em>The Heiress</em> is a Bore, but Hensley is Monstrously Titillating in <em>The Whale</em>

Tasha Lawrence and Hensley in The Whale.

Samuel D. Hunter, the playwright, may be making a cautionary wake-up-and-smell-the-formaldehyde statement about the fatal dangers of obesity in American society, or he may just be throwing a live electric wire into the audience with the hope that nobody gets electrocuted. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what the point of The Whale is. I just know I was glued to the stage for one hour and 50 minutes without an intermission. No time for a bathroom break. Maybe you won’t need one. The play is so riveting you don’t want to miss anything—like figuring out how Mr. Hensley manages to stand erect in a costume the size of a grain elevator.

He can’t leave his cluttered shambles of an apartment (designed by Mimi Lien with such cramped realism you can smell the pot smoke and the vomit), so he makes a living tutoring students online on how to write and edit essays interpreting literary classics. Right now he’s obsessed with finishing his own essay about Moby Dick, which he considers a metaphor for his own life. Whale … victim … destined to die in the end—get it? Charlie is also a weepy, self-loathing homosexual who has been a maudlin recluse since the death of his lover Alan, who was the son of a Mormon bishop. His only friend is an enabling nurse named Liz, a lapsed Mormon who drops by to bring him a fat-boy wheelchair, then saves him from choking to death on a meatball submarine. The misery escalates with the arrival of a 19-year-old door-to-door Mormon deacon who offers spiritual guidance, and Charlie’s sullen teenage daughter Ellie, whom he hasn’t seen for nearly 15 years. Ellie is a high-school Poison Ivy who insults the father she hates, hooks the devout Mormon on dope and reluctantly finishes the essay after Charlie promises to leave her his life savings of $150,000. In the end, the human Humvee is deserted by all.

Would you believe me when I say I found it as engaging as it is bewildering? I couldn’t tell you what it means with a gun pointed at my head, but Mr. Hunter’s writing and Davis McCallum’s direction formed an impassioned and arresting clash of minds and emotions that held my interest. And when all else fails, there is the marvel of Mr. Hensley with his head protruding from a gargantuan mountain of lumpy flesh that makes Ionesco’s Rhinoceros look like Tom Thumb. Throwing up a meatball sub is a far cry from singing with the New York Philharmonic, but that costume will be the talk of the town at next year’s Greenwich Village Halloween Parade.

rreed@observer.com