Bolt your doors, lock your windows and get your guard up.
You’ll want protection against a vandal about to come your way – “The Vandal,” to be specific.
Hamish Linklater’s 2013 play has never been seen out west, let alone in Orange County, a deficiency Chance Theater will remedy in producing its West Coast premiere.
And with its eerie overtones and spooky feel, the comedic drama is ideal for the upcoming Halloween season.
The non-theater savvy public knows Linklater as an actor in films such as “The Big Short,” “Battleship” and “Fantastic Four” and television series including “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” “The Good Wife.” “Newsroom” and “Legion.”
Linklater’s life and career, though, have been steeped in the theater world – notably right here in Orange County, starring in South Coast Repertory’s 2002 production of “The Violet Hour” and in the title role in SCR’s 2007 staging of “Hamlet.”
Productions like that were springboards for his starring in the original Broadway cast of “Seminar” in 2011 alongside Alan Rickman, and his theater resume is rife with Off-Broadway and regional stagings of Shakespeare’s most piercing works as well as numerous contemporary dramas.
“The Vandal,” the actor’s first venture into playwriting, premiered in 2013 at Off-Off-Broadway’s Flea Theater, garnering both public and critical acclaim. His second play, “The Whirligig,” debuted Off-Broadway in 2017 at the Pershing Square Signature Center with a cast headed by Tony-winner Norbert Leo Butz.
The play’s plot is deceptively simple: Two strangers (played by Amanda Zarr and Sam Bullington), known only as “The Woman” and “The Boy,” are waiting for the bus on a cold road at night. The bus stop is next to a cemetery and the bus is late.
The fast-talking teenager won’t leave The Woman alone. He works hard to get her to talk to him, using everything from philosophical riffs to brash seduction. Waiting for a special delivery, and getting sucked into their interactions, is the owner of a nearby liquor store (Robert Foran, known only as “The Man”).
It soon becomes clear that none of the play’s three characters have any idea what the night holds in store for them — and that they’re just as unaware that the night will prove fateful in that it may provide answers they’ve been seeking.
Kari Hayter, director of Chance’s production, calls the play “smart and honest about the complicated connections and questions that humans face every day,” saying that it “takes you on a wild ride that is similar to an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone.’ It explores the struggles of the human experience as it questions reality and one’s perception of reality as we negotiate through life’s challenges and the power of loneliness.”
“What excites me about this play,” she said, “is the element of surprise. I love the reminder that we must always be open to the unexpected and to what we cannot control.”
Casey Long, Chance’s managing director, said the show “has a perfect spooky atmosphere for Halloween, while also exploring the universality of loneliness and the desire to connect.”
Founding artistic director Oanh Nguyen said numerous factors led Chance to select “The Vandal,” including “the story, the writing, the characters and the structure – and how we imagined it would fit into our most intimate venue.”
Nguyen said the play “was being tossed around as a possible co-production between the Chance and a theater company outside of Orange County. We’re looking at different projects now, so we decided to produce this one on our own. And of course we heard about the production at the Flea Theater. Aside from being a fan of their work and feeling a bit of a kinship to their mission, organization and history, one of our artists is also a member there.”
In reviewing the Flea’s original production, the New York Times referred to “The Vandal” as “intimate, funny and spooky,” saying its three characters “are effectively drawn with sharp contours” and that “(their) antagonism gives way to a growing sense of camaraderie in their mutual acceptance of life’s sadness, and the long, inescapable shadow of mortality.”
The New York Daily News says playwright Linklater “could take the narrative anywhere. He leads it to ‘The Twilight Zone’.” And that the play is “about the unbreakable bond between life and death and the little pleasures and huge hurts along the way.”
Director Hayter said the play “touches on the significance of human connections and the many ways in which we experience loss and the healing process involved. I think it analyzes life and death and shows us the complications of both.”
“It also reveals the idea behind what we don’t know and the courage it takes to accept things we do not know or understand.”
Hayter said neither she nor anyone else at Chance had seen the New York production and wasn’t familiar with it “so I was able to read it fresh and be surprised by the twists and turns.”
“What excites me about it is the element of surprise. I love the reminder that we must always be open to the unexpected and to what we cannot control. I’m always intrigued with a play that exposes possibilities beyond our imagination that we may not be able, or willing, to see.”
Even after five weeks of rehearsal, Hayter said she was “still fascinated by the statements, surprises and questions the play asks. It’s very deep, but at the same time, it’s funny and quick.” She also notes that “the way the play makes you go back and look at where you might have missed clues” bears similarities to the 1999 film “The Sixth Sense.”
Asked whether the play pushes any boundaries, either thematically or from a theatrical standpoint, Hayter said it does “in terms of what it wants the audience to take from play. It puts the responsibility, in a fun way, onto the audience to figure out what’s going on. You really have to pay attention and listen and really have to decide how to interpret the play and what it’s saying. It doesn’t lay it all out for you.”
Hayter said the meaning of the play’s title “personifies those who are destructive. It is that destructive behavior that comes into play thematically, philosophically and literally when the play questions and analyzes anger, death, loss and the human experience.”
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: This story has been edited to fine-tune the description of the plot.