Sunday, December 7, 2014

Pocatello ***

In the last three years, Samuel D. Hunter has garnered Obie, Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel and GLAAD awards and, most recently, a MacArthur Fellowship. He is regarded as one of our most promising young playwrights. However, I was not smitten either by The Whale (despite a memorable performance by Shuler Hensley) or by The Few. His interest in chronicling the lives of marginalized Idahoans seemed too limited. I am happy to report that I found his latest play, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, considerably more ambitious and universal. Even though the setting is once again Idaho, the location could be any small American city experiencing economic decline and a loss of its uniqueness. Hunter compassionately illustrates the psychological damage on ten people whose hometown has slid into a jumble of fast food joints and big box stores. The lead character is Eddie (T.R. Knight), manager of the failing local outlet of a national Italian restaurant chain known for its soft breadsticks and salads. One would think that a sensitive gay man would flee Pocatello at his earliest opportunity, but Eddie feels strong roots dating back to his great-grandfather and has delusions that he can somehow forestall the closing of the restaurant and reunite, however briefly, his fractured family. His cold, distant mother Doris (Brenda Wehle) seems to want to have nothing to do with him. His older brother Nick (Brian Hutchison), who has only come back from Minnesota for a brief visit at the urging of his wife Kelly (Crystal Finn), cannot contain his eagerness to get away as rapidly as possible. Troy (Danny Wolohan), the waiter who has known Eddie since childhood, has a troubled marriage. His wife Tammy (Jessica Dickey) has a problem trying to stay on the wagon, their bright but troubled 17-year-old daughter Becky (Leah Karpel) is so environmentally concerned that she can barely eat, and Troy’s father Cole (Jonathan Hogan) suffers from dementia. Waiter Max (Cameron Scoggins) is grateful to Eddie for being the only employer in town willing to hire him after his stint in drug rehab. Waitress Isabelle (Elvy Yost) tries to skim along life’s surface without making waves. The opening scene, with all ten characters onstage, is quite a tour de force. Hunter generously gives each character at least a moment in the spotlight that gives us insight into what makes them tick. The cast is very strong, especially Knight as Eddie. One look into the combination of hurt and hope in his eyes speaks more than paragraphs of dialogue. Davis McCallum’s direction is superb. There is a silent moment when Tammy decides whether to take a drink of wine that is almost painful to watch. Lauren Helpern’s set accurately captures the look of a faux-Italian chain restaurant and Jessica Pabst’s costumes suit the characters well. There is more than enough sorrow to go around, especially for a relatively brief play. The ending needs to be more emphatic — no one applauded until the lights came up as if uncertain the play had really ended. The play impressed me as a big step forward for Hunter. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes, no intermission.

No comments: