‘The Vandal’: good play, great showcase for Deirdre O’Connell

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Two strangers meet at a bus stop on a very cold winter’s night in Kingston, New York, and slowly start to open up to each other, in the funny and creepy play “The Vandal” that just opened at The Flea Theater in downtown Manhattan.

The actor Hamish Linklater is making his playwriting debut and it’s an impressive piece of work in terms of both structure and content — objections you might have in the first half of the play about the story logic are explained in an audacious twist at the end (the shift from realism to supernatural elements is handled with great skill).

As you might expect from a play written by an actor, Linklater has written wonderfully juicy parts for his cast of three, with the role of “Woman” providing virtuouso opportunities for the great New York stage actress Deirdre O’Connell and her director Jim Simpson.

O’Connell has done her share of film and TV work — I can still remember her brief but devastating appearance in the Peter Weir movie “Fearless” — but she is especially revered in the New York theater community for her consistently excellent performances at non-profit venues such as The Public Theater, New York Theatre Workshop and the Rattlestick Theatre.

In 2010 she won both the Obie and Drama Desk awards for her work in the Playwrights Horizons hit “Circle Mirror Transformation.”

O’Connell doesn’t seem to have much interest in Broadway fare (although she did turn up last season in the short-lived “Magic/Bird”), preferring the risky plays and even riskier roles available off and off off Broadway.

“The Vandal” was announced last year as a vehicle for Holly Hunter, but when she exited the project O’Connell stepped in, and it is now hard to imagine anyone else playing this endlessly surprising woman, who starts off rationing her words as if they are a precious commodity and then unleashes a torrent of pent-up grief and anger.

Noah Robbins plays the chatterbox teen who tries to barrel his way through the woman’s silence, and Zach Grenier is the owner of a nearby liquor store who figures prominently in the second half of the play. Both men deliver strong performances that bolster the O’Connell character’s startling journey through the night.

The less you know about “The Vandal” the better, but I can tell you that you won’t see a finer performance on a New York stage at the moment than Deirdre O’Connell’s haunting work in this fresh new play.

(For more information on “The Vandal” visit, www.theflea.org)

Joe Meyers

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