Hamish Linklater and the Mystery of Death
The celebrated actor becomes a playwright
An impoverished middle-aged widow, a flirty chatterbox teen, and a convenience store owner quietly drowning in grief. These are the desperately lonely spirits who haunt the stage in The Vandal at The Flea Theater.
It’s rare for a first-time playwright to be able to conjure such disparate characters, but Hamish Linklater is no ordinary industry newbie. A sought-after stage and screen actor—most recognized for his stint on the sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine, though theatergoers know him best from Shakespeare in the Park, Broadway’s Seminar and his Obie-winning turn in David Ives’ comedy The School For Lies—Linklater has been surrounded by writers his entire life. In fact, he initially intended to become one, too.
“I went to Amherst College to be a writer,” he says. “My grandfather was a writer [celebrated Scottish novelist Eric Linklater], and my mom’s brothers are writers [journalist Magnus Linklater and nonfiction writer Andro Linklater], so it always seemed like an appealing thing to do. But I decided I liked acting better, so I dropped out and moved to New York City when I was 19.”
A career on the boards may have been inevitable since Linklater literally grew up in the theatre. His mother, acting coach Kristin Linklater, co-founded Shakespeare & Company on the Berkshires estate of Edith Wharton, and the family lived in the late novelist’s house on the grounds where the productions were mounted.
Though Linklater’s acting career quickly took off, he never quite shook the writing bug. He even married a scribe: playwright and screenwriter Jessica Goldberg, from whom he’s now divorced. While still together, the couple collaborated on the 2008 TV pilot The Prince of Motor City, which was inspired by what Linklater calls his “regional theatre Hamlet habit. I had played the part a bunch of times outside the city, and Jessica said we had to start making money off of it. So we got the idea of turning Hamlet into this urban ghost soap opera set in Detroit.”
Although the project wasn’t picked up, Linklater continued to write at a feverish pace, especially for such a busy actor. At last count, his portfolio includes a bunch of one-acts, four full-length plays, and five interlocking short stories based on his bohemian childhood.
The Vandal marks his professional playwriting debut, and it’s an insightful meditation on death that was inspired by personal experience. “I had lost some people who were close to me,” he says. “The play came out of a period of a lot of people sitting in grief in the wake of death, and me wanting to add oxygen to that environment. It’s so hard to talk about death, but I knew I wanted to. So I came up with this woman [played by veteran character actress Deirdre O'Connell] sitting at a bus stop who has lost everything and then I thought, what if someone came up to her and tried to cheer her up? And things just sort of went from there.”
While developing the piece, Linklater had readings of the play (including one at New York Stage and Film, where he connected with Flea founder and artistic director Jim Simpson), and sought feedback from friends and peers, including his Seminar costar, two-time Tony nominee Alan Rickman. “Since I was playing a writer who was getting advice on his work from Alan’s character, I asked him to read the play,” Linklater remembers. “I thought he would rip me apart, just like in the script, but he was incredibly generous—although he did point out the bits that he thought were ‘TV writing.’ So I changed those. He even ended up doing a one-night reading of it last year.”
While The Vandal certainly has twists and turns, it’s really not a plot-driven show. It’s a showcase for intense emotions and uncomfortable conversations, as the three characters confront their immobility and mortality. One scene in particular stands out, as the unnamed woman laments the long drawn-out death of her husband by crying, “Here’s how you say good-bye for three years: ‘goooooooooooooooooooooooooooood byyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyye, IIIIIIIIII loooooooooooooooooooove yoooooooooooooooou.’”
It’s a goose bump moment, filled with anguish and sorrow, and really brings the impact of death into focus, which is exactly Linklater’s point. “We all go through grief like that at some point in our lives,” he says. “As the woman says, ‘I can’t remember ever talking so much about death in a night,’ and yet we all have it in common.”
Raven Snook regularly writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.
Photo by Joan Marcus