Deirdre O’Connell and Noah Robbins in a scene from The Vandal
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Hamish Linklater is best known as an extraordinary young actor who gets better with each performance and who is at home in classical plays (Shakespeare in the Park’s The Merchant of Venice) as he is in contemporary work (Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar). Now it is revealed that he is also a playwright with his first New York staging, the world premiere of The Vandal presented by The Flea Theater. The Flea’s artistic director Jim Simpson has gathered a cast of equally accomplished performers, Zach Grenier, Deirdre O’Connell and Noah Robbins, for this first outing. While Linklater exhibits an accomplished ear for the way people speak and an admirable shorthand ability to delineate character, The Vandal is basically an over-extended anecdote in dramatic form.
When the play begins, O’Connell is discovered sitting on a bench in the cold awaiting a bus in Kingston, New York, that never seems to arrive. From her posture, she looks like she has spent a great deal of her time waiting for things that fail to happen. She is accosted by a young man of 17 (Robbins) who begins a conversation but really wants her to buy him a six-pack of Budweiser. The young man is accomplished at getting information out of people, though most of her answers are cagey, asking as much as they tell. It transpires that she has been paying a call on a friend at the hospital across the way, while he has been visiting the grave in the cemetery behind them of a high school classmate who committed suicide. She seems to be the more depressed of the two.
When the young man’s guilt trip succeeds, we next see the woman at the nearby liquor store. The cynical owner claims to know the young man and wants news of him. He also questions the middle-aged woman as though he doesn’t believe her reason for wanting the beer, and questions both her ID and her credit card. At that point, the woman returns to the bench and the grateful young man. By now we know that one of them may be lying – and possibly both. And which is the vandal? The play eventually turns supernatural, requiring a suspension of disbelief. The woman and the storeowner meet again, and that is about it.
Deirdre O’Connell and Zack Grenier in a scene from The Vandal
(Photo credit: Joan Marcus)
Simpson has chosen to direct in a very slow, methodically studied fashion so that everything seems to take longer than it should. Although the running time is only 75 minutes, every scene goes on too long until it becomes tedious since we learn so little from each encounter. The characters circle the same topics again and again without revealing a great deal of new information. The set design by David M. Barber beautifully establishes the three distinct locales needed (the bus stop, the liquor store and the cemetery) in a very small space, but lit by Brian Aldous the sets fail to create the spooky atmosphere needed for what turns into a supernatural tale on a dark night.
The actors, however, do a fine job with Linklater’s well-conceived characters. With her posture, body language and delivery, O’Connell tells us everything we need to know about the life of this woman who has been through hard times and expects little from life. Like the young man he played in the Broadway revival of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Robbins is immediately recognizable as the loquacious, upbeat teenager who uses words and stories to build a wall around himself and hide who he really is. Grenier, who can currently be seen on the CBS series, The Good Wife, here creates a man whose very skepticism and disparagement masks a soul who has been damaged by his previous experiences.
The Vandal has some excellent writing and fine performances by its trio of actors. If you are looking for a completely satisfying evening in the theater, this won’t be it. However, if you want to be in at the beginning of the career of a talented new playwright who has not yet found his own voice, you may not want to miss Hamish Linklater’s first New York play.
The Vandal (through February 17)
The Flea Theater, 41 White Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.theflea.org
Running time: 75 minutes