In the name of full disclosure, we weren’t looking forward to reviewing “The Vandal.” The plot centers on two strangers at a bus stop telling each other stories to pass the time, and we suspected that it would serve as a cheap framework to tie together an otherwise unrelated series of 10-minute vignettes, like the off-Broadway equivalent of “Movie 43.”
As was the case with Peter Farrelly’s latest work, we suspected, deep down, that any first play by Hamish Linklater would be produced simply because the man at the helm was well-connected in Hollywood (to wit, one benefit reading of this piece called in heavyweights Alan Rickman and Sigourney Weaver).
So consider us surprised to settle into our seats at The Flea Theater and actually disappear into this engaging plot from its first monologue, delivered by a chatterbox teenager who’s at once likable with the earnest self-disclosure of an Amy Sherman Palladino character. The same fine balance of eager vulnerability that worked so well for Noah Robbins in last year’s “The Twenty-Seventh Man” at The Public Theater also appeals to the obstinate, ornery Margaret (Dierdre O’Connell), who slowly lets down her guard and starts warming to Robert’s quirky requests. First, it’s just to buy him beer since he’s underage — but that leads to a series of small favors that continue to peel away both characters’ layers (figuratively and literally; there’s brief nudity) as they dance ever closer to the teen’s true motives.
But we won’t reveal that here and ruin all the fun. Although all of the characters (including Robert’s dad, played with frank humanity by Zach Grenier) come to exorcise their demons through their mostly true tales, the three never share the stage — but there’s still a central plot that holds their storylines together in a way that never feels forced. “The Vandal” is a tight 80 minutes, with no intermission, and has just reasonably been extended through March 3. The writing certainly has peaks and valleys, but as a world premiere it’s a promising kickoff to what could be a secondary career in playwriting for Linklater. We look forward to his next offering to see if it builds on the momentum of “The Vandal” — no pressure, though.