When an actor writes a play, it’s usually to give himself a juicy part. Not so Hamish Linklater. A closely watched stage actor (“Seminar”) who broadened his base with his TV role on “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” this young thesp has modestly kept himself out of the picture in “The Vandal.” Linklater’s storytelling voice is remarkably assured in this moody little piece about three lonesome souls who cross paths on a cold night in upstate New York. And although the characterizations are generous, the dialogue leaves breathing room for savvy actors to make their own contributions.
A good storyteller knows to prepare his listeners for the tale he’s about to tell them. That narrative chore falls to the chatty Boy (Noah Robbins) who approaches a Woman (Deirdre O’Connell), sitting on a bench in the freezing cold, facing a hospital and across from a cemetery, waiting for a bus.
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.”
That’s it. That’s exactly what the play is about — the need for human beings to huddle together so they won’t perish from loneliness in that brief span of life between the hospital and the cemetery.
From keeping a close eye on O’Connell’s subtle but eloquent facial expressions, we already know that this Woman has a lot on her mind and is in no mood to cozy up to this chatterbox. But as we quickly learn from Robbins’ seductive patter, this Boy is not one to be denied.
Before she knows it, the Woman is swapping life histories with the kid, who even talks her into going to a local liquor store to buy him a six-pack. But once the Man (Zach Grenier) who owns the store identifies the Boy as his underage son, the play shifts into a more mysterious mode.
At 70 minutes, the brief piece breaks down into two-character scenes that incrementally boost the dramatic tension and increasingly raise doubts about the veracity of the characters’ words. Life stories that seemed credible the first time around sound suspicious in the re-telling. And while each of the three characters has a good story to tell, they become increasingly untrustworthy as storytellers.
The Flea’s a.d. Jim Simpson helms this curiously gripping three-hander like an existential mystery story. David M. Barber’s set is sparse — a bench on one side of the stage and a liquor store counter on the other. But the cemetery backdrop (suggestively lighted by Brian Aldous) and the near-silence (created by soundman Brandon Wolcott) of these desolate surroundings establish the ominous atmosphere.
For all the intrinsic appeal of Linklater’s literate script, it’s the actors who fill in the blanks — a chore that should not be trusted to anyone less skilled than the three thesps astutely cast here.
O’Connell (who replaced the suddenly busy Holly Hunter) has always been a favorite go-to actor (in plays like “Circle Mirror Transformations”) for down-deep, under-the-skin, total-immersion character studies of troubled women. The Woman she plays here maintains a guarded history, but O’Connell’s extraordinarily sympathetic perf lays bare her most intimate secrets and all her aching pain.
Grenier, most visible in “The Good Wife” but long a New York stage favorite, is a spare actor, but a study of his face reveals that he’s drawn the character of the Man from some dark place where you don’t want to go.
Young as he is, Robbins knows his way around Broadway (in “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Arcadia”) and partners really well with these stage veterans. And although he’s still in school (at Columbia, majoring in Philosophy), no one can teach him anything he doesn’t know about playing seriously damaged kids who have lost their way home.