Noah Robbins and Deirdre O’Connell run away with Hamish Linklater’s ‘The Vandal’

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Noah Robbins and Deirdre O'Connell in 'The Vandal.' (Joan Marcus)
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The Kingston Tourism Board, if there is such a thing, shouldn't expect an onslaught of new visitors eager to experience for themselves the setting of Hamish Linklater's funny and creepy new play The Vandal, which gets its world premiere this week off Broadway at the Flea Theater.

In Linklater's mind, the struggling Ulster County town is the kind of place where the hospital and cemetery are conveniently located across the street from each other.

But things aren't entirely hopeless. "If you have to go to one of the other two places, and you're able to stumble out alive," one character points out, "at least there's the liquor store waiting for you."

That observation comes from Robert, a teenager with a chatty disposition and a deadly sense of humor. We meet him at a bus stop, where he's trying to charm a middle-aged woman named Margaret into buying him a beer. At first she's distracted, having just come from the hospital, but is so moved by his flattery (he says she could be his "sexy aunt") that she eventually agrees to make a trip to the aforementioned liquor store.

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Turns out that Robert gets his flirtatious manner from his father, who happens to run the store. Dan knows exactly who asked Margaret to buy the beer, and even urges her to throw in a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos because they're his son's favorite. Margaret thinks this is a bit peculiar, especially after Dan begins to query her about how his son looks, as if he hadn't seen him for a long time.

It's not giving away too much of Linklater's plot to say that father and son are estranged, and that they are using Margaret, unwittingly at first, to check up on each other. She finds herself drawn to them both, perhaps because they complete, in an odd way, the family structure she lost when her husband died of testicular cancer. She even convinces Robert that she is his mother; Robert's actual mother might or might not have died in childbirth.

That's just one of the eerie elements of Linklater's play, which has a couple of twists and turns that are surprising, if not entirely believable. Later scenes sometimes contradict what happened in earlier ones, but it doesn't spoil the fun. Linklater, better known to New York theater-goers for his acting in plays like Seminar and School for Lies, has an ear for realistic dialogue and for humor that doesn't come across as jokey.

Noah Robbins (so good in Secrets of the Trade) is completely convincing as Robert, who sounds like every smartass teenager you've ever met, albeit with a gregariousness that's a bit more adult. It's easily the best thing this up-and-coming young actor has done. And Zach Grenier (Storefront Church) is also good.

But the show belongs to the wonderful Deirdre O'Connell, playing the central role of Margaret that was originally announced for Holly Hunter. O'Connell, so poignant as a no-nonsense foreign-aid worker in Lisa Kron's In the Wake, seems to specialize in women who are barely holding things together. There's nothing flashy about the performance, which is what makes it so moving.

Directed by Jim Simpson, the show is especially polished for the often seat-of-their-pants Flea. Every part of the production, from David M. Barber's minimalist set to Claudia Brown's understated costumes to the subtle lighting by Brian Aldous, is first rate.

The Vandal is playing through February 17 at the Flea Theater, 41 White Street between Church Street and Broadway. Tickets are $20 and are available at www.theflea.org.