On a frigid winter night, a stone-faced middle-aged woman finds herself alone, waiting for an overdue bus at the world’s dreariest bus stop. A hospital directly faces her, a shadowy cemetery looms behind her, and to her left is a drab liquor store, its lurid neon sign glaring in the foggy night. This is the dreary scene that opens The Flea Theater’s world premiere of The Vandal. When a jaunty teenage boy sidles up to the morose woman and chirps “We’re gonna have to totally like huddle together for warmth, just to survive,” he doesn’t just mean the cold. This is an engrossing tragicomedy about the brief connections we forge and the fictions we tell to ease our loneliness between birth and the grave.
The Vandal is the assured debut written by Obie award-winning stage actor, Hamish Linklater, and he couldn’t have found his first play in better hands. Before her character speaks a word, veteran stage actor, Deirdre O’ Connell conveys the bone-deep weariness of a woman battered by life. Young as he is, already-lauded stage actor Noah Robbins is her match, his voluble character swiftly disassembling her character’s hostile armor with roguish rapid-fire commentary. Gazing at the hospital facing the graveyard, he imagines new mothers looking out of the window and thinking “‘Yay, new life! Oh, right, we’re all gonna die’...Thanks, city planner.” The city planner may not have been thinking but the play’s design team certainly was; David M. Barber’s evocative multi-level set is given greater depth by Brian Aldous’ dim lighting and Brandon Wolcott’s moody score, while director Jim Simpson keeps a deft, tight control over the seamless production.
Some point after the boy tells the woman she reminds him of his “sexy aunt,” defenses thaw, she agrees to buy him Budweiser from the liquor store nearby and we meet the invaluable third of this three-hander, the gruff proprietor of the shop, played by the great Zach Grenier. After exasperating the woman with questions about her choice of liquor, Grenier’s character cooly reveals he is the boy’s father and he knows she is buying beer for his minor son outside, and he also knows she’s using somebody else’s credit card to make the purchase. In an excellent flight of dialogue, he manages to wring from her the bitter circumstances that left her alone and broke at a suburban bus stop on a cold night; the story she evaded telling his equally probing son. Eventually, he lets her go, with the beer, perhaps recognizing the palpable community between them--they are both people who have been tempered by tragedy, and still bear the scars to prove it. The soul-bearing exchange between the strangers, while very well-written, is still of that improbable kind that only occurs in performance, and requires the considerable skill of the actors to carry it off.
When the woman returns to the bus stop, concealing her agitated interaction with his father, the sunny chatter of the Boy begins to subtly fall away to reveal a tragic preoccupation of his own. His cheerfully morbid stories, many of which circle around all his classmates who have died, turn to the death of his own mother in childbirth. All this verbal dance around death naturally leads the two to visit the cemetery where Linklater suddenly drops a staggering and somewhat hackneyed twist of plot, which is saved from cliche by the subtlety and vulnerability of the performers. All the stories previously told in the play get reevaluated in a new light and with these three adroit actors at the helm, The Vandal sails home; a funny, sad, touching meditation on life, and what comes after.