'The Whale' Has No Tale

Samuel D. Hunter's play The Whale might as well be called The Wail. The sad sack of bitchers and moaners assembled in this tale would make a series of Facebook status updates seem optimistic.

One guy is morbidly obese; another is a Mormon missionary suffering a crisis of faith. There's a nurse whose bedside manner is hardly cordial, and then there's a high-school senior who's apparently channeling Cruella de Vil and Idi Amin. If this were a comedy, you could excuse the characters' acerbity and garish angles. But while there are some funny moments, this is anything but a laugh-riot; it's a quite-sincere, if quite-flawed, look at a 600-pound man counting off the Kentucky Fried Chicken drumsticks until his heart implodes.

Hunter is the kind of young, emerging playwright South Coast Repertory (SCR) salivates over getting its well-honed machine hooks into; he's bright, literate and passionate, and what he says, he says well. But based on The Whale, it's not clear what he wants to say, other than it sucks being really fat.

The play centers on the mass of flesh called Charlie (a stunningly effective Matthew Arkin, decked out in a super-sized fat suit), an online writing instructor who has always tilted toward the heavy, but has ballooned in the years following his gay lover's death. The sister of that lover, Liz (Blake Lindsley), is Charlie's only friend and his kind-of nurse—even though she checks his vitals on every trip, she never shows up without some health-conscious entrée, such as a bucket of fried chicken or two meatball sandwiches, extra cheese. Enable much? Meanwhile, Elder Thomas (an earnest Wyatt Fenner) is a young Mormon missionary with a couple of bones rattling around in his closet; he is convinced that God has put him in Charlie's path to show him the spiritual light. The problem is that's the same church Charlie's lover belonged to. Both he and Liz blame the Latter-day Saints for what led to the emotional deterioration of their lover and brother, who basically starved himself to death.

Our fourth major character is Charlie's daughter, whom he has hasn't seen since leaving her mother when Ellie was 2. Understandably holding a grudge against her father, Ellie agrees to meet him when he finds out that she is failing her senior year. He strikes a deal with her: He'll write her essays as long as she regularly visits him. So, while Elder Thomas is trying to save Charlie's soul, Charlie is desperately trying to reconnect with his daughter, who apparently wants nothing to do with the pitiful wreck who ran out on her and her mother.

While playwright Hunter absolutely nails the humanity of a man who has given up on life by gorging himself to death, there's very little depth to the other characters, particularly Ellie (played by Helen Sadler, and let's hope she's just playing the part of a caustic harridan . . .). She is bitter, cold and a raving bitch; she possesses no sympathy for her father and is not reticent about proclaiming her disgust at him at every turn. That's important in terms of the play's dramatic arc—will they ever reconcile?—but it makes her time onstage discomforting at best and unbearable at worse. It's nice to see SCR co-founder Martin Benson back at the directing helm, but his inability to wring a real person out of Sadler's portrayal is something The Whale just can't overcome.

That whale, as clever playwrights often like to do, works on multiple levels. Yes, it's the leviathan named Charlie. But it's also an allusion to two real whales that factor considerably into his psyche: Melville's Moby-Dick, particularly an essay that he champions as the best he's ever read, and Jonah's whale, which, unbeknownst to him, had a major impact in his lover's unraveling.

The problem is those spiritual and emotional threads never seem to intertwine into a compelling dramatic narrative. To extend the nautical metaphor, this is a play that mainly sits at sea, its sails never fully expanding until the absolutely gripping final moments. As a portrait of a man floundering, of someone staring his own long-term suicide in the face, The Whale works. But Hunter never turns that personal capsizing into a real play. Everyone is so sad, or so angry, or so bitchy that a terminal disconnect is reached. No, we don't have to like characters in a play, but we ought to care about them—what they want, what they're trying to overcome, what makes them tick. With the exception of Charlie, that's very hard to do with these characters. The result is a play that rarely rises to the stature of its colossal namesake.


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