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What is it with writers and whales? Ever since Herman Melville's magnum opus, Moby-Dick, was published 160 years ago, cetaceans have provided an interesting allegory for man's quest to defeat others and understand himself in literary forms. Just last year, Melvillean influence permeated Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, arguably the best novel of the year. And now, Samuel D. Hunter's latest play, just opening at Playwrights Horizons, called, fittingly, The Whale (the full title of Melville's book is Moby Dick: or, The Whale) also dips deeply into Melvillean waters. A cruel social joke around the play is that upon first seeing Charlie (Shuler Hensley), one might think that Hunter's title refers to his protagonist. Charlie, an online English instructor, is morbidly obese (costume designer Jessica Pabst has crafted an eerily convincing padded costume to make him appear to be around 600 pounds), and doing himself no healthy favors. He rarely leaves the couch we see center stage of the Idaho one-bedroom apartment in which he lives. Charlie lives alone, but spends most of his time connected to a variety of people, mostly the students he instructs ? only via audio, so they have no idea of his size ? and his nurse neighbor, Liz (Cassie Beck), who enables him as much as she cautions him about his unhealthy habits. Hunter re-teams with director Davis McCallum, who helmed his last work, A Bright New Boise, which was as close to a perfect play I've ever seen on the New York stage. Both works are uniquely stylized ruminations on what both family and faith can do for people, and do to people. Charlie still aches from the loss of his lover Alan, who slowly lost his will to live out of Mormon guilt over his homosexuality. And while Charlie seems to feel that he is on borrowed time (every movement and breath requires a herculean amount of energy from Charlie, which Hensley manages with painstaking grace), he creates a de facto family by reaching out to people from both past and present, in the form of his nasty estranged daughter Ellie (Reyna de Courcy), from an early marriage to Mary (Tasha Lawrence), and to Elder Thomas (Cory Michael Smith), a nineteen-year-old Mormon missionary who ended up at Charlie's door and keeps getting invited back. Whale could easily show the erasure marks and indentations of an emerging playwright in a less visionary writer's hands, but Hunter's work, set over the course of five days and with multiple nods to Melville and the Biblical story of Jonah, never feels overly tidy nor pretentious. He even manages to find dramatically necessary ways to provide exposition, thanks to his skill with dialogue. McCallum guides a superb ensemble to fully-realized, humane performances. His supporting cast skirts cardboard characterizations: on paper, Ellie comes off as insensitive and nasty to the point of disbelief, but de Courcy creates an understandably wounded modern teenager who knows how to use language as a weapon. She often provides needed humor for the play, allowing it to bend but never break. Smith ensures that Elder Thomas, a contemporary Ishmael, never feels like plot contrivance, shading in youthful confusion and naïveté instead of caricaturing it. Beck and Lawrence, too, show complicated connections to Charlie. These are all real people, suffering but surviving, and finding their own ways to have questions answered. And then there's Hensley, a force of astonishing physical and emotional bravery that, well, grounds the play at every well-constructed turn. Earning, never courting sympathy, the sight of Charlie reminds of something that this character, himself an English grad student, has always known: that everyone, regardless of appearance or (mis)fortune or decisions, has a story worth being told. The Whale Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, Manhattan, (212) 564-1235. []( Through Dec. 2.  

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