Why does the act of waiting inspire so many movies, plays, novels? One answer: while waiting we are more likely to meet strangers and set storytelling in motion. In his touching new play, The Vandal, at the Flea Theatre, Hamish Linklater employs the waiting device at a bus stop. The duration of the evening, 68 minutes, is shorter than the wait between late-night arrivals on some New York City bus routes.
On a bone-cold evening in Kingston, New York, a 17-year-old Boy, given terrific appeal by Noah Robbins, tries to engage a middle-aged character called Woman in conversation. He tells her he has just been to a cemetery near the bus stop to visit the grave of a young friend. Indicating the adjacent hospital, where Woman says she has just been visiting someone, and a nearby liquor store, Boy says the convergence is ironic: a meeting of the dying, the dead and the drunk.
Boy wants Woman to go to the store and buy him a six-pack of beer. At first she resists, but, once he mentions that his mother died after giving birth to him, something in her softens. She gathers up her thrift-store coat, gives a shake of her collapsed-beehive hairdo, and trudges off to carry out his request. Until this point, Deirdre O’Connell, as Woman, has conveyed taciturn eloquence. Soon enough, drink will spirit her into the kind of broken-down upstate-New York landscape marked out by the novelist Richard Russo.
The liquor-store owner, known as Man and played in no-nonsense fashion by Zach Grenier, tries as hard as Boy to lure Woman into conversation. Man tells Woman that he knows she is buying booze for the kid outside, and that the young man is his son. From this point, the production, which is directed with efficiency and taste by Jim Simpson, begins to tread murkier waters. Linklater’s play becomes a meditation on grief, and the way in which departed family members can upend our sense of reality.
But even a story exploring shifting notions of reality must provide sufficient detail. As the drama hummed along, I kept wishing that Linklater had established the plot points in more graspable order. The Vandal feels a bit like a one-act play stretched thin. But the humour, first-rate performing and sharp dialogue make the journey rewarding.