The Whale

The 600-pound protagonist of this Samuel D. Hunter play is “a singularly arresting character.”

Playwrights Horizons, New York

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The 600-pound protagonist of this Samuel D. Hunter play is “a singularly arresting character,” said Erik Haagensen in Backstage. Sitting on a broken sofa in his Idaho apartment and dying of heart disease brought on by his overeating, Charlie is “a curious mixture of crippling self-loathing and determined optimism, deep sadness and fierce love.” He’s a teacher of online classes in critical writing, so direct references to Moby-Dick arrive early. But his main business here is trying to make amends with loved ones—including the wife he left when he realized he was gay and their 17-year-old daughter, whom he hasn’t seen in 15 years.

Buried inside “what must be one of the biggest fat suits ever constructed,” actor Shuler Hensley confronts us with an image of humanity “at its most grotesque,” said Charles Isherwood in The New York Times. A “labored wheezing” accompanies Charlie’s every breath, yet Hensley—a Tony winner for his recent turn in Oklahoma!—ensures that we never lose sight of his heart, or of his “agile if troubled mind.” Less convincing are Hunter’s women. Charlie’s best friend, played by Cassie Beck, is inexplicably erratic in her approach to this recluse’s self-destructiveness, and Charlie’s daughter (a “glumly funny” Reyna de Courcy) is written as “a glaring caricature of a troubled teen.” Poor Charlie: “It might even be easier for him to run a marathon” than to forge a bond with the “electrically embittered young woman who arrives at his apartment.”

But it’s easy to misread Charlie’s mission—and Hunter’s, said Scott Brown in New York magazine. “As he did in his breakthrough play, A Bright New Boise,” Hunter has constructed “an outsize Gothic scenario in miniature” in order to push beyond realism. Charlie’s self-negation is “only a mystery because no one will look at him head-on; they insist on imprinting him with their own mysteries, obsessions, and quests.” Meanwhile, he seeks only a simple truth, and in doing so, he allows Hunter to achieve something remarkable: “a quiet but firm rejection” of many of the illusions plaguing America today.

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