Wednesday, December 03, 2014


photo: Jeremy Daniel
Since his brilliant debut play, A Bright New Boise, had its New York premiere in 2010, Samuel D. Hunter's output has been both prodigious and prolific. At 32, he's already picked up an Obie, a Lucille Lortel Award, and a MacArthur "Genius" Grant. He's been averaging 2-3 new plays a year, including The Whale, a problematic, fascinating look at obesity and isolation, and The Few, a strange and satisfying little play that recalled early Sam Shepard. Time and again, Hunter has chronicled life in his home state of Idaho with the same gimlet eye that August Wilson once brought to Pittsburgh. All of which makes the spectacular failure of his latest work, Pocatello, so nakedly glaring. Set in a failing Italian chain restaurant (you know the one, even though it's never named), this boring and formless attempt at dark comedy is staler than a day-old breadstick.

The play opens during "Familigia Week" at the restaurant, which general manager Eddie (T.R. Knight) has cooked up to welcome home his successful and distant brother, Nick (Brian Hutchison). Along with their mother (a miscast Brenda Wehle) and Nick's wife (Crystal Finn), the family gather for soup, salad, and long-seeded resentments. Eddie's clan is not the only familial powder keg, though. Waiter Troy (nicely played by Danny Wolohan) is dealing with a backsliding alcoholic wife (Jessica Dickey), a senile father-in-law (the veteran actor Jonathan Hogan), and a teenager daughter (Leah Karpel) who, predictably, hates the world. Cameron Scoggins and Elvy Yost round out the play as two servers who have enough drama going on between them for ten people. What only Eddie knows, at least in the beginning, is that the franchise is on its last legs; permanent closure is imminent, another sign of a recession that's battering the small Northwestern town that gives the play its title.

This promising premise offers very little in the way of satisfying theatre. Much of the play feels slapped together, with loose strands constantly dangling. Eddie is gay, but not much is made of his experience as a gay man in an isolated small town; this has been a recurring, well-explored theme in Hunter's other plays. It comes across as little more than an afterthought here. (A brief moment in which Scoggins' character, Max, cruelly rebuffs what he perceives as a sexual advance from Eddie offers a short glimpse at the punch this play could have packed). Similarly, the aspect of familial rejection that is meant to serve as a through-line feels underdeveloped. Nick has made the conscious choice to separate himself from his family, and his hometown, as much as possible; Hunter plainly states the character's reasons in a less than artful way. Despite skillful work from Hutchison, a dependable journeyman actor, Nick comes off more as whiny and entitled than credibly wounded.

Both Dickey and Karpel give staggeringly good performances as a mother and daughter who are clueless in their attempts to navigate the world. Dickey is especially adept at bringing layers to her alcoholic character that simply aren't there in the writing. Similarly, Knight is often able to make up the deficit in Eddie's story line thanks to his committed character work. Rail thin and constantly wearing a pained smile, his expressive face and sad eyes speak volumes. It often made me feel mournful for the missed opportunities of the play.

Directed by Davis McCallum, who's helmed the New York productions of all of Hunter's plays, this is clearly the case of a work being put in front of an audience way too soon. Given the natural and proven talents of the playwright, I imagine it will end up a minor blip in his career. That said: not recommended.

[Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission. Fifth row center, TDF.]

Correction: An earlier draft of this post misidentified the actor playing Nick. His name is Brian Hutchison, not Brian Henderson.

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