When was the last time a tortilla chip led you to a discourse on ontology? As Robert (Noah Robbins), an antic teenager, loiters at a bus stop and chomps a handful of Cool Ranch Doritos, he contemplates his place in the universe. “Is, like, the chip our life, the flavor dust our dreams, the fingers reality?” he asks. “Wait, no, what if the chip is the soul, the flavor dust is magic, the fingers what you do with your soul, and the mouth Deep Space.” Does this also apply to the nacho cheese variety?
Robert’s monologue comes courtesy of The Vandal, Hamish Linklater’s tender, occasionally indulgent, and ultimately surprising playwriting debut, now running at the Flea. Linklater, a celebrated actor, excels in portraying sardonic young men; he can do exasperated disbelief better than anyone in the business, as in School for Lies. A decade ago, he might well have played Robert, who boasts not so much a gift of the gab as hyperemesis of the jaw. He prattles on even when the beleaguered woman (Deirdre O’Connell) also shivering at the upstate bus stop wants nothing to do with him. She responds to his questions with shrugs and monosyllables, if she responds at all. But Robert keeps on, eventually persuading her to buy him a six-pack from the liquor store where his father (Zach Grenier) works.
Much of the play seems an amusing if sometimes strained exercise in keeping that bus stop conversation going. That the woman keeps missing the bus is perhaps too convenient, and Linklater’s dialogue, though clever, sometimes struggles to keep the unlikely relationship going. But under Jim Simpson’s confident direction, it is a delight to watch Robbins’s excitable fidgetiness chafe against O’Connell’s extraordinary stillness. (And really, O’Connell, both grizzled and luminous, would be a delight to watch if paired only with the bus stop sign.)
Toward the end, the play abandons this naturalistic banter, changing locales and taking a generic turn that astonishes even as it feels a little cheap. You can’t deny its pleasure even as you suspect it plays rather loose with the dramatic rules, metaphysical ones, too. But, hey, who says we always have to favor the honest, the honorable, the good-for-us? After all, just try and leave the show not craving a bag of Cool Ranch.