BY DAVID KENNERLEY | Hear the name Shuler Hensley and chances are you think of his comic titular turn in “Young Frankenstein” on Broadway. Fans may remember he copped the Best Featured Actor Tony for playing the grimy hermit, Jud Fry, in “Oklahoma!” a decade ago.
Now, in “The Whale,” the former opera singer plays an entirely different kind of monster — a profusely sweaty, 600-pound recluse named Charlie who makes a living teaching an online essay-writing class. His crabby nurse, Liz (Cassie Beck), his only friend in the world, brings him fried chicken and meatball subs and monitors signs of imminent heart failure. Spending all day and night on the sagging couch, Charlie can barely stand. He needs a walker just to lumber off to the bathroom. Starved for human affection after the tragic passing of his partner, he’s literally eating himself to death.
To say Hensley’s poignant portrayal is astonishing would be an understatement. With the aid of prosthetics (a fat suit), he fully inhabits the role with devastating precision. With his bulging, watery eyes, persistent wheezing, and masses of quivering flesh, we want to look away but simply cannot.
“The Whale,” written by Samuel D. Hunter (“A Bright New Boise”), is set in present-day Idaho — Mormon country — and is ripe with a dizzying array of plot twists and revelations both richly engrossing and affecting. The dicey dynamics of faith, family, homophobia, altruism, and self-actualization… these are just a few of the themes tackled in this bold, two-hour, intermissionless work.
Charlie’s pathetic routine is thrown into turmoil by several surprise visitors. The first is Elder Thomas (portrayed with finesse by Cory Michael Smith, fresh from his acclaimed turn in “Cock”), who says he’s on a mission from the Mormon Church to convert despair into hope. Having caught Charlie at a particularly intense moment watching gay porn, Elder Thomas proves to have a few dirty secrets of his own.
Then there’s the sullen, snippy 17-year old Ellie (Reyna de Courcy, who overplays the angry young brat role), Charlie’s estranged daughter who hates him and the rest of the world. Later, his shrill, alcohol-dependent wife (Tasha Lawrence) makes an unwelcome appearance. She’s hardly seen him since he ran out on her to live with a man years ago.
Under the savvy direction of Davis McCallum, “The Whale” isn’t afraid to dig deep into the muck, both physically and emotionally.
Mimi Lien’s set of a dilapidated abode, bordering on “Hoarders” territory, is meticulously littered with the detritus of Charlie’s sorry semblance of a life –– an old computer monitor (he uses a laptop now), shelves piled with books, forlorn knick-knacks, and tumbleweed-like clumps of dust on the carpet. Is that a case of Velveeta in the kitchen?
Charlie has even fashioned a handy little caddy to hold his television remote control, using cardboard and duct tape. Charlie’s enormous clothes seem permanently stained with oil and perspiration. You can practically smell the rancid pizza boxes.
If you think “The Whale” refers to the morbidly obese Charlie, you’re only partially correct –– Hunter has carefully woven in two iconic literary whale references that add dimension to the work. One is the biblical story of Jonah, who defied God and was imprisoned in the belly of a whale until he repented.
The other is “Moby-Dick,” the Herman Melville epic (originally titled “The Whale”) of the deluded, futile pursuit of the great unknowable that leads to inevitable doom. As the taught drama unfolds, we see how much Charlie has in common with both of these tales.
What’s more, scene changes are punctuated by the sound of churning ocean waves, in complete darkness.
Just as Elder Thomas believes that God has a plan that He is relentlessly revising, Charlie instructs his students to constantly hone their essays. That is, until he changes tacks and urges them to ditch the rules and simply write from the gut, grammar be damned.
When Charlie decides to break a few rules himself and grab one last chance at redemption, the results are at once hopeful and heart-wrenching.
THE WHALE | Playwrights Horizons | Peter Jay Sharp Theater |416 W. 42nd St. | Through Feb. 9 | Tue.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 2 & 7 p.m. | $60 | ticketcentral.com