(Michael Feingold’s article appeared in the Village Voice, 11/7.)
Idaho borders no ocean. But the apartment where Charlie (Shuler Hensley) lives and works, as an online tutor in English comp, is haunted, day and night, by the sound of crashing waves. An eighth grader's essay on Melville's Moby-Dick, or the Whale is one of Charlie's pet preoccupations. And another theme that has shaped his life turns out to be the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale, on which Melville's hero, Ishmael, hears a sermon early in the novel.
The whale imagery and its ghostly waves fit Charlie, the tragic hero of Samuel D. Hunter's vibrant, provocative new play, The Whale (Playwrights Horizons). Charlie himself is something of a whale. Weighing in at over 550 pounds, sleeping (and mostly living) on his couch because he can barely make his way into his bedroom, Charlie has been slowly eating himself to death for a dozen years, like a self-swallowing Jonah, or an Ahab who is the target of his own vengeance. His obvious love of literature, and of teaching, have become almost irrelevant, elements of a recurring dream that was meaningful back before Charlie's systematic move toward self-destruction.