REVIEW: "The Vandal"— A West Coast Premiere @ Chance Theater
ANAHEIM, CA—Hamish Linklater’s moody little piece about lonesome souls who cross paths in a small suburb of upstate New York is making its mark right now on the Fyda-Mar Stage at Chance Theater through October 20th, giving us a brief master class in minimalist acting.
“The Vandal,” a modest but amiable comedy-drama that is the playwriting debut of Mr. Linklater, a Broadway actor (“Seminar,” “The School for Lies”), depicts the gradual coming together of two lonely mortals in surprising, supernatural circumstances. But although Linklater’s characterizations are generous, the dialogue leaves much breathing room for savvy actors to make many of their own contributions.
In this impulsive yet chilling West Coast premiere, that narrative chore falls to the chatty 17-year old Boy (Sam Bullington, “Skylight”–Chance, “Killer’s Head”) who approaches a Woman (Amanda Zarr, “In a Word,” “Good People”), sitting on a bench in the freezing cold, facing a hospital…right next to a cemetery, waiting for a bus. The bus is late. Taking a seat beside her, he sizes her up and says, “We’re gonna have to totally, like, huddle together for warmth, just to survive.”
Staring glumly, silently, with her arms held tightly together for maximum warmth, her nameless character utters only the chariest of responses. But the motor-mouth teenager won’t leave her alone, becoming more nervy and obnoxious by the minute, seemingly desperate to score some beers at the corner liquor store nearby.
He works hard to get her to engage, using everything from philosophical riffs to bold seduction, and even comparisons of eating Cool Ranch Doritos to religious experiences, but that leads to a series of small exchanges that continue to peel away both characters’ layers. In one extended ontological metaphor, he ponders, “what if the chip is the soul, the flavor dust is magic, and the fingers what you do with your soul...”
Barely glancing in his direction, her clipped replies to his relentless brashness exudes an obvious frosty determination to embark upon this vigil in as much solitude as possible, thank you very much. Although he pretends he can’t read her body language, pregnant with meaning, it couldn’t be any clearer: this long, dull wait for the bus is just about all this Woman expects from life—today, tomorrow or ever.
The Boy, not one to be denied, eventually coaxes the woman into confessing that she has just come from visiting a friend in the hospital. Right away, the existential proximity of a “get well soon” facility and an “R.I.P.” one so close together inspires a funny trope. “I guess it’s practical, it’s like economical, if things don’t go well in one place it’s a short drive to the next,” he cracks, adding that this might, on the other hand, put a damper on the moods of expectant mothers. “You’re like, Yea, new life! Ooooo, right, we’re all gonna die. Shoot, almost forgot. Thanks, city planner.”
The bubbly geniality of the Boy’s character eventually burrows through the woman’s tough armor, especially when he compares her to another free-spirited woman he knew. "Life is short, and, like, much easier to waste than use,” he says, "and therefore when you see a chance to buy a funny kid a beer so that your freezing wait for a bus is noisy and entertaining instead of quiet and boring, you both choose life! Life! Life! Rah, rah, rah!”
Before she knows it, the Woman is swapping life stories with the kid, who finally talks her into buying him that six-pack. Maybe because her heart is defrosting, and maybe just so the bothersome boy will clam up, the Woman takes the short walk to the liquor store, only to be given a rough welcome by the wary, sardonic proprietor. He demands to see her ID, although she’s clearly on the far side of 40. He questions her credit card. Then, in a more mysterious mode, he advises her to buy some Cool Ranch Doritos along with the beer. When she balks, his revelation then sets the stage for a darker finish.
Directed by Kari Hayter, “The Vandal” has been expertly cast. In addition to Ms. Zarr and Mr. Bullington, the play stars Rob Foran (“The Laramie Project Cycle,” “The Eight Reindeer Monologues”) as the liquor store owner near the bus stop. Mr. Foran, his baritone voice rumbling with mordant humor, imbues his storekeeper with a dryly cynical attitude that matches nicely with his customer’s, although his testy sparring with her eventually wears on the woman’s nerves.
“What excites me about this play is the element of surprise. I love the reminder that we must always be open to the unexpected and to what we cannot control,” says Director Hayter, who helms this curiously gripping three-hander like an existential mystery story. “The Vandal takes you on a wild ride that is similar to an episode of The Twilight Zone. It explores the struggles of the human experience as it questions reality and one’s perception of reality…”
All three characters in “The Vandal” are effectively drawn with sharp contours, and while the revelation on which the play turns is a slightly hoary one, it nevertheless gives the resolution a nifty little twist.
More appealing are the subtle ways that the loneliness and the quiet fortitude of the Woman and the storekeeper are expressed, especially when they find themselves together in the cemetery, drinking beer, eating Doritos and examining the gravestones. As they compare their losses in life, the antagonism gives way to a growing sense of camaraderie in their mutual acceptance of life’s sadness, and the long, inescapable shadow of mortality. Although all of the characters, including the Boy’s dad, played with frank humanity by Mr. Foran, come to exorcise their demons through their mostly true tales, the three never share the stage—but the central plot holds their storylines together in a way that never feels forced.
Joe Holbrook’s set is sparse—a bench in the middle of the stage with a symbolic graveyard in three levels that resembles part of a cemetery and also serves as landscape around the bus stop. A portable liquor store counter is off to the side for the store scene. Suggestive lighting by Nick Van Houten and the occasional near-silence of these desolate surroundings by sound designer Cricket S. Myers establish the portentous atmosphere.
Costumes by Elizabeth A. Cox were on the mark and authentic; props showed attention to detail and were meticulously overseen by Megan Hill. The play is stage managed by Jazmin “JP” Pollinger. Karen O’Hanlon is assistant director and Morgan Green is dramaturg. Executive Producers are Rachelle Menaker and Eddie Schuller and Season Producers are Bette and Wylie Aitken, with Associate Season Producer, Laurie Smits Staude.
Hamish Linklater’s “The Vandal,” with two additional performances added, plays through October 20th and is one hour, twenty minutes with no intermission, beginning with a light, amusing mood and tenor and gradually turning more ominous. For all the intrinsic appeal of Linklater’s literate script, it’s the actors who fill in the blanks—a task that should not be trusted to anyone less skilled than the three thespians astutely cast here.
For ticket information and show times, please see https://chancetheater.com/
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