Review: Guilt meets gluttony in weird 'The Whale'

This theater image released by The Publicity Office shows Shuler Hensley, left, and Cory Michael Smith in a scene from “The Whale,” currently performing off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in New York. (AP Photo/The Publicity Office, Joan Marcus)

NEW YORK (AP) — There are some seriously messed-up issues with food in Samuel D. Hunter's smart new play, "The Whale."

Hunter examines the way one man grasps at some kind of reconciliation and truth with his estranged family as he nears a death slowly self-inflicted by gluttony. This weirdly compelling, frequently funny play, which opened Monday night in its New York premiere by Playwrights Horizons, deals with guilt, religious rigidity and some bad parenting. Also Mormon jokes.

Directed by Davis McCallum with no holds barred, Hunter's scenario puts us inside the messy apartment of smelly, sweaty, morbidly obese Charlie, a most unlikely leading man, whose self-loathing, piggish habits and laborious private struggles are often unpleasant to watch.

Yet Shuler Hensley, previous winner of Tony and Olivier Awards, does a remarkably affecting job as 600-pound Charlie, mocking and bitter. He hasn't seen his ex-wife or now-teen-age daughter in 15 years, after coming out as gay and leaving them for a younger man, Alan, who later starved himself to death. Working as an online tutor, Charlie's been over-eating ever since.

Hensley, in a realistically wobbling fat suit, slowly heaves in place like an upended turtle, or hauls himself painfully around the stage. With Hensley's quirky facial expressions and Hunter's black-humored dialogue, Charlie is gradually revealed as engaging, guilt-ridden and complex.

Refusing to go to a hospital because he has no health insurance, Charlie's medical care comes with nurturing/enabling by his good friend Liz, (a feisty Cassie Beck), who happens to be a nurse. After a chance visit by a young door-to-door Mormon missionary, Elder Thomas, (played with touching earnestness by Cory Michael Smith), Charlie hopes Thomas can resolve a mystery involving Alan's death and the local Mormon church.

As his health rapidly fails, Charlie begins persistently trying to connect with his estranged daughter, a hostile piece of work named Ellie. Reyna de Courcy blows the lid off her role as angry, bullying, 17-year-old Ellie, whom Charlie finds wonderfully "amazing" because she's smart and independent-minded.

But she's also cruel and manipulative, and de Courcy glowers and flounces around with relish as Ellie, who shuts down conversations with contemptuous interruptions like, "I'm bored!" and "Oh my God, stop talking!"

Tasha Lawrence is tautly angry as Charlie's now-alcoholic ex-wife, who misguidedly kept father and daughter apart, but is shocked and concerned to find him in such terrible health.

Hunter brings these five characters together and has them interact in awkward yet unexpectedly impactful ways, with all of them (even Ellie) eventually revealing their desire to find connection and understanding.