Shuler Hensley in ‘The Whale’ is lonesome, wretched, and dying, but is there a limit to sympathy?

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Cassie Beck and Shuler Hensley in 'The Whale.' (Joan Marcus)
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If you saw Shuler Hensley play Frankenstein’s monster in the film Van Helsing, or the monster in the Broadway musical Young Frankenstein—talk about typecasting—you already know that he’s a big guy. But you’ve never seen him quite as big as he currently is off-Broadway in The Whale.

Hensley plays Charlie, a morbidly obese shut-in whose health is fading fast. He refuses to go to the hospital—it’s hard enough for him to get off the couch, or reach for the remote—but he does have frequent visitors. Mormon missionary Elder Thomas thinks he can save Michael’s soul, while Liz, a nurse whose late brother was Michael’s partner, thinks she can heal Michael’s illness. Michael’s ex-wife Mary berates him for all his past failings, while their teenage daughter Ellie verbally abuses him because of the pathetic man he’s become. It’s not the most supportive group, but they’re the only ones willing to step inside Michael’s smelly apartment and watch him wheeze and sweat and suck down gallons of Dr Pepper.

He’s poor, he’s lonely, he’s sick, and—as everyone seems to tell him—Michael is repulsive.

“Just being around you is disgusting,” Ellie blurts out in a typical moment of viciousness. “You smell disgusting. Your apartment is disgusting. You look disgusting.” This from the girl he loves more than anyone in the world.

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Did I mention that he’s dying? This isn’t a secret. Everyone treats Michael like crap anyway. It’s hard not to feel sorry for him.

But as The Whale progresses, the audience’s sympathy starts to wane: Maybe he’s not such a poor unfortunate soul. Maybe he’s brought his loneliness, and even his illness, on himself. Michael doesn’t suddenly morph from victim to victimizer—this isn’t The Beauty Queen of Leenane—but he does start to seem somewhat responsible for his own predicament, however sad it might be and however much he might apologize for his appalling situation. He was an absent father, he was a dishonest husband, he is a gluttonous overeater, and he is a mediocre teacher to the students in his online writing class. He made his couch, and now all he can do is sit on it.

Before Michael dies, though, he wants some kind of closure. He wants to find out why his partner “slowly killed himself.” He wants to reconnect with his misanthropic daughter. And he wants to teach the students in his online writing class how to express themselves honestly. His efforts on all fronts are awkward, ill-conceived, and sometimes ugly, but in the end they provide a sort of redemption.

Samuel D. Hunter’s script is solid, and Mimi Lien’s cluttered, dingy set puts the whole thing in a realistic context. But the evening rides on Hensley’s performance, and he is entirely up to the task, creating a complex and layered character with a variety of uniquely problematic relationships. He doesn’t move much, and he doesn’t actually do much, either, but his Michael is hard not to watch, and hard not to care about.

The supporting cast is also strong. Cassie Beck pulls off the most complicated role as Liz, simultaneously short-tempered and patient, concerned and enabling. Cory Michael Smith is appealingly earnest as Elder Thomas, while Tasha Lawrence brings a bit of dark humor to Mary’s smoking-and-drinking-fueled rants. As Michael’s daughter Ellie, Reyna de Courcy is relentlessly cruel—just like a lot of teenage girls; it’s hard to take, but that’s the point. She’s tiny, especially next to her gigantic father, but she’s as powerful as he is weak.

‘The Whale’ is showing at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 W. 42nd St. Tickets are $60. Call 212-279-4200 or buy online here.