Riveting performances steal the stage in ‘Vandal’

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With “The Vandal,” new playwright Hamish Linklater, better known for his acting roles in plays like “Seminar” and television series like “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” has not composed a groundbreaking work of art. However, he has placed himself at the helm of a play with airtight, amusing dialogue and a perfect cast.

Almost like a short story by Edgar Allan Poe or O. Henry, “The Vandal” tells an eerie tale featuring characters whose psychologies are revealed quickly, even as the plot moves forward slowly. Much like the works of those other writers, this production is very preoccupied with death.

Deirdre O’Connell sits glumly at a bus stop, ironically surrounded by a graveyard, a hospital and a liquor store. Noah Robbins joins her, playing a teenager who uses his sense of humor to deflect personal questions and make others uncomfortable.

Though the first scene between O’Connell and Robbins is theatrically fast-paced — that is, the dialogue is slightly too clever to be natural — it still portrays a convincing impression of reality. Zach Grenier (“Fight Club”) later joins and completes the small ensemble of sarcastic, jaded misfits.

“The Vandal” is a show where Cool Ranch Doritos can instigate a deep metaphysical conversation. While these situations are jarring at first, Linklater’s script perfectly meshes serious with silly in such a way that audiences can learn something without being weighed down by any holier-than-thou language.

More than anything, “The Vandal” questions the importance of telling the truth as opposed to the effectiveness of lying. At one point, O’Connell tells Robbins that stretching the truth is “common courtesy.” Based on the truths that eventually come out, perhaps she is right.

In a sense, any live production casts its audience as the detective, adding up physical cues and foreshadowing to determine where the characters will end up. Just like any good mystery story, Linklater’s play has false starts and red herrings. There is a trail of breadcrumbs leading to the ultimate plot twist, but there are diversions along the way, which only serve to make the climax all the more staggering when it arrives.

“The Vandal” is playing at the Flea Theater at 41 White St. through March 3. 

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Feb. 12 print edition. Clio McConnell is a senior editor. Email her at theater@nyunews.com.

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