What’s so interesting about watching a 600-pound man eating himself to death? Quite a lot, actually. It helps that the suicidal protagonist of Samuel D. Hunter’s eccentric play, “The Whale,” which originated at the Denver Center Theater Company, is intelligent and well spoken. It also doesn’t hurt that the witnesses to this perverse spectacle are a cut above the commonplace, or that helmer Davis McCallum catches every emotional nuance. But it’s the offbeat dramatic style — essentially realistic, but with an overlay of symbolism — that makes this theatrical experience something of an adventure.
Our first sight of Charlie (Shuler Hensley), sitting on a beat-up sofa and surrounded by junk food, is a shocker. Luckily, the students who take his online classes in critical writing can’t see what their tutor looks like. At 600 pounds, Charlie is both morbidly obese and clinically depressed — the consequence, he tells us, of watching his Mormon lover starve himself to death after being called out by his church. It’s only poetic justice, he implies, that he should turn himself into a whale to honor the lover who turned himself into a skeleton.
That’s heavy emotional baggage to carry, but Hensley (a memorable Jud in the revival of “Oklahoma!”) has infallible instincts for balancing light and dark, and spinning comedy into tragedy. (That fatsuit he wears looks heavy, too, earning costumer Jessica Pabst a nod.) To the fury of his best friend, Liz (a high-strung wreck, in Cassie Beck’s wired perf), Charlie has just about reached his goal of killing himself. His blood pressure is a scary 238 over 134, and he’s been diagnosed (by Liz, who happens to be a nurse) with heart congestion.
In fact, if it weren’t for a passing Mormon, Charlie would already be dead. In Cory Michael Smith’s endearing perf, this screwed-up kid talks Charlie down from a heart attack by reading him, as per his request, a passage from a student’s sensitive essay on “Moby Dick.”
In his book, such sensitivity is something to live for, at least for a while. So is his unrealized objective to reconnect with his estranged wife, Mary (Tasha Lawrence, working herself into an emotional tailspin), and their daughter, Ellie (Reyna De Courcy). Ellie is what any parent would call a handful — a mean and nasty girl with the heart of a killer and the vocabulary of a trucker. De Courcy, bless her heart, plays it like a war game and takes no prisoners. It’s no wonder Charlie finds his daughter “amazing.” But can he reach her before her fury consumes her soul — and before his own body shuts down?
The unanswered question in all this is: Who is consuming whom? In his obsession with “Moby Dick” Charlie does seem to have cast himself as Capt. Ahab, in thrall to the great white whale he’s obsessively hunting.
At the same time, there are frequent references to the biblical fable of Jonah, swallowed by a whale. And from time to time, the lights darken on Mimi Lien’s set and the sounds of the sea come up, revealing Charlie’s slovenly apartment to be enclosed in a casklike container that resembles the skeleton of a whale. So maybe Charlie has been consumed by the very thing he fears most, and is already in the belly of the beast.
Or maybe all that whale imagery, and Charlie’s references to himself as a whale, mean something else entirely to the scribe. But one thing you have to say about his play — it’s not boring.