The actor Hamish Linklater, perhaps best known for playing the brother of Julia Louis-Dreyfus on the CBS series The New Adventures of Old Christine, makes an impressive debut as a playwright with The Vandal. In a mere 70 minutes he makes a persuasive case that he has a promising career to fall back on if acting fails him. The play opens at a bus stop in Kingston, N.Y., on a frigid night. A middle-aged woman (Deirdre O’Connell), huddling in layers of clothing and looking weary, sits on an exposed bench. A teenager (Noah Robbins) approaches her and tries to engage her in conversation, explaining that he’s been in the nearby cemetery cleaning the grave of a friend who died. There’s something not quite right about him—is he a robber? A molester? Eventually, he wheedles her into going to a nearby liquor store and buying him some beer. But that’s not all he’s hoping for.
Inside the liquor store one learns the woman’s identity as she attempts to make the purchase. She is Margaret Cotter, and the owner, Dan, gives her an inordinate amount of difficulty, but with reasons that are slowly revealed. In an explosive scene, we learn Margaret’s story, and O’Connell gets to cover a lot of emotional bases—fear, desperation, pain and sadness among them.
The boy’s identity, Robert, is also known to Dan. He has been sending people in on a regular basis to buy beer for him. Though Dan has occasionally gone out to look for him, he has failed repeatedly. Oonce Margaret delivers the beer to the boy, they open up to each other. The final scene takes place in the cemetery, after Robert and Margaret have left the bus stop to go drinking there and have become separated. As a drunken Margaret searches and yells for Robert among the gravestones, she runs once again into Dan.
Those are the bare bones of the plot, and you don’t want to know more, because there are nifty surprises all along the way, handled with both daring and assurance. The Vandal is about grief and the ways in which people cope with it, and how it can seize you and immobilize you until you become deadened to life.
The Flea Theater production, directed by Jim Simpson, is beautifully judged and splendidly cast. Linklater provides vivid, poetic imagery for his actors, and they all rise to the occasion. Even so, O’Connell is riveting in her silence, reacting minimally as Robbins natters on, yet she conveys volumes with a sidelong glance. Claudia Brown’s costume for her incorporates layers of fabric, from a T-shirt to pullovers and a scarf; they are both appropriate for the weather and serve as visual parallels to the many layers of defense Margaret has in her misery. And when Margaret lets loose emotionally, she’s frightening and pathetic.
Meanwhile, Robbins tries to find out why Margaret isn’t using her car; he describes his love of French and his teacher’s obsession with another student; and he guesses that she has been to the hospital across the street (represented in David M. Barber’s spare set simply by an Emergency sign on the wall). Noah Robbins is engaging, irritating, and fascinating in the part, as well as a bit snarky at times, providing welcome humor.
As the liquor store owner, Zach Grenier is an irritating foil for Margaret, provoking her with his questions and asides and a demand for identification, though she is clearly past the threshold age for a purchase of alcohol. Although he knows Robert has sent her in, his reluctance to make it an easy buy for her goes beyond safe business practices. He’s weary, too, and beset by personal trauma, which he gradually reveals.
Occasionally a question arises: Do teenagers really clean off their friends’ graves? Why does Robert lounge with his jacket and shirt open, seemingly unaffected by the cold that had made him shiver minutes earlier? But Linklater ties up those loose ends nimbly. The Vandal isn’t a “big” play, in spite of its themes and the listing of the characters as Man, Woman, Boy to indicate intentions of universality. It’s better to think of it as a sterling novella, a harbinger of bigger things to come.
Photos by Joan Marcus