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'The Whale' comes to Rep Stage after 2012 Off-Broadway premiere

In "The Whale," 500-pound Charlie (Michael Russotto) gets a stream of visitors to his messy apartment, including his obnoxious teenage daughter Ellie (Jenna Rossman).
In "The Whale," 500-pound Charlie (Michael Russotto) gets a stream of visitors to his messy apartment, including his obnoxious teenage daughter Ellie (Jenna Rossman). (Submitted photo)

If you read a plot summary of Samuel D. Hunter's "The Whale," you might conclude that this Rep Stage production must be a really depressing play.

It's about a gravely ill, 500-pound man who refuses to go to the hospital, but instead sits nearly immobile on a sofa in his apartment. Speaking of his apartment, it is so full of clutter that the addition of just one more fast-food container would make the place qualify as a landfill.

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You couldn't be blamed for assuming that the play's title is a rude joke at this blubbery man's expense. Such rudeness would be par for the play, because this lonely man's occasional visitors get into their share of nasty arguments with him.

However, actually watching the play is a very different experience than such assumptions indicate. Despite the inevitably depressing aspects of this man's situation, "The Whale" is funny and even sentimental. Yes, some of the humor derives from fat jokes that would not pass a political correctness test, but many of the jokes are about characters trying to navigate a situation that does have its absurd qualities.

"The Whale," which had its Off-Broadway premiere in New York in 2012, is being given its Baltimore-Washington premiere by Rep Stage. This first-rate production directed by Kasi Campbell is blessed with exceptionally well-cast actors, a convincingly messy apartment courtesy of set designer James Fouchard, and solid contributions by the rest of the production team.

Now, as for that seemingly rude title. It turns out that Charlie, the hefty man living an isolated existence in an apartment in Idaho, makes his living as an online writing tutor.

His writing students send him essays about novels including Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" and F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." When Charlie reads some of these poorly reasoned student essays aloud, you'll laugh out loud and be tempted to reach for a grading pen of your own.

The actor playing Charlie, Michael Russotto, must do almost all of his acting with his face, because the rest of him is inside a remarkable fat suit created — or perhaps one should say constructed — by Wil Crowther. Russotto has such a sadly expressive face and such labored breathing that you don't doubt Charlie is tired of living.

The play itself has plenty of life, though, as other characters pass through a front door that's fortunately keep unlocked. If we all had to wait for Charlie to lift himself off the sofa, grab his walker and shuffle over to unlock the door, you wouldn't get out of the theater until dawn.

Running a little over two hours, "The Whale" has a surprisingly snappy pace considering that its title character rarely moves from that sofa. Revelations about Charlie and the others are smartly planted within the conversational flow, and the insult-laden conversation will keep you nervously laughing.

If anything, Hunter's decision to break the play up into numerous short scenes proves to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it facilitates making adjustments to the room population and also gives a sense of momentum in a potentially static setting; on the other hand, several of the mini-scenes feel needlessly brief and tend to make the play seem a tad choppy.

Among those visiting Charlie is Liz (Megan Anderson), a nurse and friend whose tough-love stance often places the emphasis on tough. As if Liz's sharp tongue weren't enough of a lash, Charlie has a second visitor who is prone to totally insulting him.

Ellie (Jenna Rossman) is Charlie's 17-year-old daughter. This miserable teen verbally lashes out at her father so severely that sometimes you'll laugh simply because what she's shouting is so horribly profane and otherwise inexcusable.

While we're wallowing in the depths of a dysfunctional family, Charlie's ex-wife and Ellie's mother, Mary (Susan Rome), makes an appearance and reinforces your sense that this is the unhappiest family in all of Idaho.

The odd man out in this already-odd gathering is Elder Thomas (Wood Van Meter), a young Mormon missionary whose door-to-door rounds brought him to Charlie's apartment door. Without spoiling what happens after he enters into Charlie's life, let's just say that you'll wonder whether he can spark religious fervor in Charlie or whether Charlie and his clan will pull Elder Thomas into their claustrophobic melodrama.

"The Whale" runs through Feb. 1 at Howard Community College's Rep Stage, at 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. For ticket info, call 443-518-1500 or go to http://www.repstage.org.

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