Hamish Linklater has spent so much time over the past few years dazzling us on stage and the small screen, it's hard to fathom when he even found time to write The Vandal , now receiving it world premiere at The Flea Theater. But on the evidence of this funny, ultimately spooky one-act, Linklater has not only spent a lot of his precious free time at the computer crafting smart dialogue and compelling characters, but possibly sitting around campfires or hanging out with that master storyteller Conor McPherson.
The Vandal is the sort of work that the less you know going in -- the program only refers to its three characters as Man (Zach Grenier), Woman (Deirdre O'Connell), and Boy (Noah Robbins) – the more you can enjoy being taken along for the ride during its 70 minutes, swiftly paced by director Jim Simpson. And, immediate post-morteming is definitely not advised, as examining the plot's inconsistencies may well spoil your mood.
What you can (and should) know in advance is that Linklater smartly structures the show as a series of one-on-one encounters during a freezing night in Kingston, New York between a seemingly distraught woman and two very different men: an overly gregarious teenage boy she meets while waiting for a bus home from the local hospital, and the gruff owner of a nearby liquor store. No one, including the woman, is exactly who they initially claim to be, and not even the most experienced theatergoer will see all the twists and turns in advance.
Linklater distracts us from such contemplation through his vividly rendered and occasionally ornate dialogue, from the boy's pseudo-philosophical musings on the possible meaning of Doritos' flavor dust to the woman's primal-scream explanation on what it means to watch a loved one die far more slowly than she imagined.
While The Vandal was originally announced as the long-awaited return to the New York stage of Oscar winner Holly Hunter, savvy local theatergoers know any chance to savor the work of the award-winning O'Connell is not one to be passed up. This virtuosic actress – who remains onstage for the entire show-- once again creates an indelible portrait of a recognizable, almost ordinary woman. She also navigates the character's lightning-fast mood changes with remarkable ease, yet always stays true to her core as a woman struggling to cope with tragedy, but somehow refusing to completely give up on life.
Fortunately, O'Connell has been given two scene partners who can keep up with her. Robbins expertly walks along the dramatic high-wire, melding precocious wisdom, slight obnoxiousness, and aching vulnerability into a memorable turn. Meanwhile, Grenier peels away his character's layers with the skill of a master chef, slowly yet surely revealing the bruised soul underneath the seemingly callous shopkeeper we first encounter.
Like many brand-new plays, The Vandal would possibly benefit from another draft or two; some transitions could be smoothed out and a little bit of rethinking could be used to eliminate its less believable moments. But even with its imperfections, the show's sharply-drawn characters are apt to steal your heart.
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