An overabundance of symbolism is one of the problems with The Whale, but it's not the only one. Samuel D. Hunter's play, which just opened at the Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, derives its title from no less than three separate sources: the 600-pound man who is its central focus; the title figure of Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick, who is integral to the plot; and a third that appears sufficiently late in the two-hour evening to count as a spoiler. To help things along even more, Davis McCallum's production makes frequent use of ocean sounds and a set that looks like a tidal wave in mid-crest. It's enough to drown in.
What most water-logs the proceedings, however, is inconsistency. Hunter has obsessively layered numerous elements of literature, religion, medicine, sexuality, sociology, and family dynamics, but not successfully found a way to blend them into a single story that convinces us it's worth telling. As each onion-like level of skin is pulled away to reveal more beneath, the feeling is more that you're experiencing excess than you are depth.
This is, of course, appropriate considering the presence of the terminally obese Charlie (Shuler Hensley). All but confined to his apartment in a small Northern Idaho town, he passes his days downing as much food as he can and teaching a Web-based essay writing course. His only regular visitor is his friend, Liz (Cassie Beck), a nurse who brings him groceries, meatball subs, and endless insistence that he go to a hospital before it's too late — assuming it isn't already. She estimates, in fact, that Charlie has less than a week left.
Emboldened by this development, Charlie decides to make a couple of additional connections. First, to Elder Thomas (Cory Michael Smith), the Mormon missionary who inspires outrage in Liz, but who Charlie seems generally interested in talking to (and discussing scriptural matters with). More important is Charlie's 17-year-old daughter, Ellie (Reyna de Courcy), whom he hasn't seen since he divorced her mother and embraced his homosexuality 15 years earlier. She resents him, and pretty much everything else in the world, but reconsiders him when he promises to not only write English papers that will keep her from flunking out but also give her the sum total of the $120,000 he's saved over the years.
The Whale becomes, then, predictably episodic. Each scene represents a new day of Charlie's ostensibly final week, in which his heart rate and breathing deteriorate and the relationships he's trying to form around him increasingly threaten to implode around him. The prevailing question Hunter addresses is merely whether Charlie will live to see his dreams fulfilled, something that, on its own merits, is not insufficient dramatic fuel. But, as executed, it's almost impossible to care one way or another, because no one — not Hunter, not McCallum (whose staging is otherwise quite good), and not the actors — has decided exactly who any of these people are supposed to be.
At one end of the spectrum are those who are gut-punchingly real: Liz and Mary (Tasha Lawrence), Charlie's ex-wife, who hasn't entirely gotten over their marriage. Beck and Lawrence portray these women as driven and forceful of spirit, the kind who get what they want even if they have to force the issue endlessly. You believe, as you should, that they have complex feelings for this man that they're unable to express in traditional words, leaving them to explode in anger, frustration, and actions that, by any objective viewing, cause more harm than good. Yet you recognize why they do this, and can't argue with their choices emotionally — if you've ever known someone who's died, chances are you've known an enabler just like one of these two.
Occupying the other extreme are Elder Thomas and Ellie, drawn in vibrantly cartoonish hues. The former is a typically callous religious man, who recites talking points as if from a script (funny that) rather than a deeply held belief system, and neither means nor lives what he says when the chips are down. (Hunter tries — and fails — to use Elder Thomas's "big secret" to fuel the tension in the second half of the show.) Ellie, on the other hand, is crassly hateful and dismissive of everything, a hollowed-out Goth Girl stereotype that bitches, moans, and parades about in staccato movements that scream "anger"-with-quotation marks rather than honest resentment. That both Smith and de Courcy are unable to make their characters relatable is not surprising.
Caught in the middle is Charlie. Though genuinely sympathetic, and constructed with precise detail down to the passion he feels for the long-dead male lover that unwittingly inspired his decline, too many of his words and actions are questionable in context. Much is made, for example, of his treatment of a particular essay that nothing about Charlie suggests would actually unfold as shown; his teaching, too, is so volatile, it's difficult to accept that he's done the job in an apparently exemplary fashion for nearly two decades.
Hensley does a bravura turn in the part, letting you see the anguished soul behind the anguished body (depicted by way of a remarkable fat suit), and helping you to understand the symbiotic relationship between the two. If there are no tangible connections between Charlie's various behavioral patterns, Hensley doesn't let on, and charts a sobering line from beginning to end that incorporates the decay of every part of Charlie's physical and psychological makeup.
Unfortunately, this is not quite enough to build a play on. With Charlie at best intermittently real, he's overwhelmed by the far more compelling Liz and Mary, about whom you can't help but feel the play should have been about in the first place. There's not enough time for them, though, because The Whale is ultimately more about how it weaves its narrative than it is exploring the connections that give our lives and our deaths their truest meaning. As a result, you spend most of The Whale waiting for a splash that never comes.