Hamish Linklater’s twisted new comedy at The Flea begins with little fanfare, two strangers meeting at a bus stop. It feels like almost a minimalist theatrical cliche. But the play goes places we never expect once Character 1, the precocious, talkative teenage boy (Noah Robbins), begins to penetrate the gloomy miasma surrounding Character 2, the frumpy, taciturn middle-aged woman (Deirdre O’Connell, Circle Mirror Transformation).
It’s cold out, and they may have just missed the bus; time expands. The woman says she’s come from visiting a friend at a nearby hospital; but as the conversations play out, and the suspicious owner of the nearby liquor store (Zach Grenier of TV’s The Good Wife) appears with new information, doubts arise about the stories each character has been telling.
When the liquor store owner challenges and baits her, the quiet woman undergoes an emotional explosion in what is sure to prove one of the Off-Off-Broadway season’s more stunning moments. While the first scene suggested the boy as the story’s central character – and plot-wise that turns out to be more or less the case – as a character exploration The Vandal is the woman’s story above all, and to it Ms. O’Connell brings all the skills, both subtle and coarse, that have made her an Obie and Drama Desk winner.
Indeed the story is extraordinarily well played all around, and that, combined with the script’s finely tuned realist mode, makes us feel we’re witnessing interactions that could really be happening in any lonely nighttime locale. That impression is strongest of all in the final scene, as the woman and the liquor store owner get drunk in a cemetery and the flow loosens to the point where things feel like they’re about to fall apart – just as conversations do in real life when people lose concentration. Our antiheroes talk of death, of illness, of sex, of happiness and rage. “I just think it’s hypocritical thinking,” the man blurts, complaining about pop psychology: “Let happiness be happiness, and let anger be anger, and don’t tell my rage to run on your schedule. Man.”
“That must have been some divorce,” the woman replies. It’s not the only funny line in the sequence, but things have gotten so tipsy and scattered I’d begun to think the playwright himself had gotten drunk while writing the scene. But the point of lulling us into momentary confusion, even disinterest, becomes clear with the shocker ending.
Directed by Jim Simpson, Founder and Artistic Director of the Flea, the play takes place on a set that’s just about as simple as can be, though it makes startlingly effective use of a lower level behind the main set. The goosebump-inducing sound design is by Brandon Wolcott. At the price of a Manhattan movie ticket plus a bucket of popcorn, going to see The Vandal should be a no-brainer for lovers of artful entertainment. Visit The Flea online for more info or go directly to Ovation Tix (or call 866-811-4111) for tickets.
Photos by Joan Marcus