The last words of the abolitionist John Brown are reported to be, “This is a beautiful country”— right after failing to free the slaves, right before being hanged for murder and treason. A similar baffling optimism inhabits the protagonist of Samuel D. Hunter’s new play, The Whale. Charlie (Shuler Hensley), a gay man weighing somewhere around six hundred pounds, mourns the death of his lover, a Mormon whose guilt ultimately killed him, while trying to reach out to his daughter, Ellie (Reyna de Courcy), in the days leading up to his inevitable death from heart failure. He also works constantly, teaching an online class in composition. His best friend, Liz (Cassie Beck), refers to him, albeit lovingly, as “that fat disgusting gay thing.” One of his student calls him “creepy,” another “apeshit insane yo.” His daughter, knowing just where to stick her knife, blogs, “There’ll be a grease fire in Hell when he starts to burn.”
His response? “She’s a strong writer.” For Charlie, humanity is sublime. In between wheezes, he asks Liz, “Do you ever get the feeling. That people. Are incapable. Of not caring? People. Are. Amazing.” Even after Ellie takes a picture of her only friend, LDS missionary Elder Thomas (Cory Michael Smith), smoking marijuana, and then sends it to his family, he refuses to accept that she is a mean, little brat: “She wasn’t trying to hurt him. She was trying to help him … He’s going home. She did that.”
In his lectures, Charlie pushes his students to ignore the conventions of writing and attempt only to be truthful—throughout The Whale, he rereads an essay Ellie wrote about Moby Dick in the eighth grade, one that is not technically good but contains moments of real beauty: “I felt very saddened by this book, and I felt many emotions for the characters … And I felt saddest of all when I read the boring chapters that were only descriptions of whales, because I knew that the author was just trying to save us from his own sad story, just for a little while.” By reengaging with her in his last days, he is attempting to teach Ellie how to write, which for him means teaching her how to think, how to communicate with and understand others.
Visually, The Whale offers a lot to engage its audience. Charlie is quite a sight, and Mr. Hensley, packed into a fat suit, heaves and sweats his way through a tremendously athletic performance. Spending most of his time on the sofa, stripped of virtually his entire body except his head, he is able to endear us to Charlie’s humanism with his slight, exhausted grins. Key lines are often repeated and then cut off with blackouts, providing more dramatic urgency than we might expect from a play set entirely in the apartment of an obese slob.
Ms. de Courcy is also excellent. Looking like a cross between Daria and Wednesday Adams, her relentless hatred of everything would have been enough to drive Mister Rogers to infanticide—she is a type, admittedly, but one we all know, and Ms. de Courcy nails the mix of feigned boredom, defensive anger, and suffocating insecurity. Her lines beginning with “Oh my God…” (i.e. “Oh my God shut up,” “Oh my God I don’t care,” “Oh my God stop talking”) never fail to elicit knowing laughter.
Still, Mr. Hunter falls shy of the substance that would make The Whale a great play. Pairing a six hundred pound man with Moby Dick is inspired imagery, but it doesn’t really go anywhere interesting, while Charlie’s faith in mankind in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is neither tragic nor funny enough; it is, in fact, surprisingly flat.
Additionally, while Mr. Hunter rightly goes after Mormonism for its homophobia, he seems rather ill informed in his attacks. Liz, a former member of the Church herself, claims that Elder Thomas will tell Charlie that he’s going to Hell—though she should know that fire and brimstone are famously absent from Mormon cosmology.
Ultimately, The Whale is a bit like Charlie himself: big and fascinating and compelling to look at but filled with empty calories.
The Whale runs through December 15th at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. 416 W. 42nd Street New York, NY.