Theater review by David Cote. Flea Theater. By Hamish Linklater. Dir. Jim Simpson. With Deirdre O’Connell, Noah Robbins, Zach Grenier. 1hr 10mins. No intermission.
There’s a reason why the vast majority of plays (from Aeschylus onward) are peopled by family members, spouses or old friends: backstory. “Remember that time…” is narratively more felicitous than “Hello, person I have never met; let us spend this scene together.” So extra credit goes to Hamish Linklater, whose playwriting debut,The Vandal, throws together three strangers on a cold night in Kingston, New York, forcing them to reveal themselves through small talk, evasions and little giveaways. That we follow their getting to know each other with growing interest is a sign of Linklater’s savvy way with dialogue, and his ability to shimmy around plot expectations. It also doesn’t hurt to have three of New York’s finest actors and director Jim Simpson’s steady hand.
Like its author (last seen Off Broadway in The School for Lies), The Vandal is slender and wiry, with a sense of humor that registers improbably between grave and goofy. The 70-minute piece opens at a bus stop late at night, where Woman (O’Connell) waits for a ride, bundled up against the chill of the night. Into this solitary lady’s orbit wanders Boy (Robbins), who blithely invades her personal space (interior and exterior) with probing questions about what she had been doing at a nearby hospital. This scene might have quickly devolved into a writing-class rip-off of The Zoo Story, but Linklater keeps the banter relatively comic. By the time he cajoles his new acquaintance into buying him beer at a nearby shop, you have fallen for both drifting souls, despite the whiff of danger.
In said liquor store, a dour proprietor (Grenier) proceeds to grill and delay the Woman (okay, her name is Margaret; Linklater’s use of archetypal character names is the one annoyance). Turns out she has a credit card that a nurse friend lent her; and we shortly discover that her husband died of cancer. The store owner then throws a curve by revealing his connection to the kid on the bench. To synopsize more would be to ruin the play’s elegant, supernatural twist. The Vandal is like a good short story, one that gets to its reality-shifting denouement swiftly and neatly, before you’ve had time to guess what it is.—David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote