Tasha Lawrence and Shuler Hensley in <i>The Whale</i>
Tasha Lawrence and Shuler Hensley in The Whale
(© Joan Marcus)
"Life, so they say, is but a game and we let it slip away," goes a line from Seals & Crofts' "Summer Breeze," one of the seminal songs of my adolescence. But most of us (myself included) would probably fight as hard as possible to hold on to our last breath. Which can make the actions of Charlie (Tony Award winner Shuler Hensley), the protagonist of Samuel D Hunter's often remarkable new play The Whale, now at Playwrights Horizons under the piercing direction of Davis McCallum, somewhat hard to swallow.

Played by Hensley with astonishing physical and emotional bravery (not to mention heavy padding by costumer Jessica Pabst), Charlie has spent the past the decade-and-a-half gorging himself on food. And now, with the grim reaper about to make a visit, the 600-pound, middle-aged man refuses life-saving medical help. Instead, he seems oddly content to leave behind his existence, troubled and unhappy as it is.

An online tutor who never lets his students see him as he corrects their essays, Charlie lives in semi-squalor in his Idaho apartment and admittedly has few personal relationships. He is long divorced from Mary (the haunting Tasha Lawrence) and, until the week the play takes place, has been completely estranged from their 17-year-old daughter Ellie (Reyna De Courcy, initally a tad one-note but ultimately heartbreakingly sad), a bitter, violent teenager who practically redefines the term "the bad seed."

Moreover, we learn that Charlie's longtime gay lover, Alan, died mysteriously some years back. Indeed, Charlie's only friend is Liz (the superb Cassie Beck), a tough-talking nurse, who is part helper and part enabler. (She brings meatball subs with extra cheese for dinner one day, an oversized wheelchair the next.)

Liz's deeper reasons for attending to Charlie eventually come clear, as does her violent initial reaction to Elder Thomas (the adorably befuddled Cory Michael Smith), a sweet-natured Mormon missionary who wanders into Charlie's apartment peddling his prophet's word, and continues to return.

While Elder Thomas initially seems like comic relief, it becomes apparent as the play draws to the conclusion of its 110 riveting minutes that he is seriously attempting to save Charlie and seeking his own salvation. And like all the characters, not just Liz, Elder Thomas is not completely who he initially seems.

In the end, however, the big question Hunter asks so sharply of his precisely defined characters is not who they are, but who wants to be saved, and, just as importantly, who feels they deserve to be. And even if it's never 100 percent clear why Charlie chooses his particular path, Hunter makes us realize that for some people, life is a game where losing seems the most reasonable, rational option, while others will keep playing until the timer runs out.