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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Playwrights and novelists often leave the places and people that shaped their youth, but revisit them through their writing. Thomas Wolfe and Eugene O'Neill are notable examples. Currently active writers include Elizabeth Strout with her Pulitzer Prize winning, HBO-filmed Olive Kitteredge, Annie Baker with her plays set in a Vermont town named Shirley. . .and Samuel D. Hunter whose growing body of vivid characters are all borne from letting his imagination tap into his Idaho roots. Which brings us to Pocatello, a worthy follow up to his last work at Playwright Horizons, The Whale. (Review link below).
Hunter's new play unfolds inside a quite realistic facsimile of an Olive Gardens Italian restaurant franchise and the title sets it in an actual place on the Idaho map. However, while Pocatello is not a made-up name, it could by just about any small city in the U.S.A. and, like the citizens of Grover's Corners, the ten people you'll meet over the course of the intermissionless hour and forty minutes could be from anywhere, USA.
The comedy label used to promote this production needs a "tragi" prefix to be accurate for Pocatello is a heartbreaker. It has its touches of humor, but they're sprinkled over the pasta like grated cheese to enhance the overall flavor.
Journalist George Packer used John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy as a template for The Unwinding, his brilliant 2013 panoramic take on contemporary America. Hunter's inspirational model for his stage portrait of the current American landscape seems to be Our Town.
Did I say ten characters? With tight budgets reducing the chances for any new play with more than four characters to be produced, is that "ten" a typo? Nope. There really are ten actors on stage. What's more, no one in this refreshingly large cast has a mere walk-on part.
T. R. Knight, who is probably best known to some viewers for his long gig on Grey's Anatomy, is more than up to the lead role of Eddie, the restaurant's fraught manager. He's no now-and-then stage actor but has trod the boards regularly (to name just a couple: Romeo and Juliet , A Life In the Theater ).
But even playwrights with awards that include a 2014 MacArthur "Genius Grant" tend to realize that plays with larger than usual casts are considered problems in today's theatrical economy. As he explained in a recent interview, he didn't set out to use his having come closer to being a fully emerged rather than emerging playwright. It was while he was up at the Williamstown Theatre Festival for his last play, The Great Wilderness (see review link below), that he wrote a scene for ten actors as part of a student workshop. Somehow that 10-character experiment took on an Our Town-like scope and evolved into Pocatello. And so, bravo, to Playwrights Horizon for giving it a chance to blossom into the current production.
The first of the play's seven scenes sees all the characters on stage. Seated at two of the tables in Lauren Helpern's spacious quasi-Olive Gardens set is manager Eddie's brother Nick (Brian Hutchinson), sister-in-law Kelly(Crystal Finn) and mother Doris (Brenda Wehle). In a booth on a raised level, there's the family of waiter Troy (Danny Wolohan): Troy's wife Tammy (Jessica Dickey), teen-aged daughter Becky (Leh Karpel) and father (Jonathan Hogan). The stage is further populated by two other employees, Isabelle and Max(Elvy Yost & Cameron Scoggins).
With everyone talking at once, don't count on picking up more than snippets of what's being said. This straining to "get" the drift of the various interchanges is an intentional device to establish that there's a lot to be sorted out here about how circumstance and time have affected these people's psyches and relationships.
T. R. Knight's Eddie joins Hunter's gallery of people at a traumatic moment in their lives. All feel a sense of having lost their connectedness to their family and a sense of community. True to the author's name his characters are on the hunt for regaining or holding on to their belief that what's gone shouldn't be gone forever and can perhaps be at least partially reclaimed.
Since Pocatello is a history play of sorts its conflicts spring directly from Pocatello's mirror like reflection of life in similar American cities: the displacement of citizens by closed factories . . . small business owners set adrift by big chain stores. . . limited and less secure job opportunities exacerbating substance abuse and playing havoc with family stability.
Eddie and Nick were in their teens when their father's untreated depression after losing his store prompted his suicide. For Nick it meant a hasty and permanent exodus from Pocatello. But for Eddie Pocatello remained a needed emotional security blanket — even after the mother to whom he'd always been close distanced herself once he came out to her.
What's not changed in the currently too homogenized, opportunity poor real yet fictionalized Pocatello is the tendency of its citizens not to talk openly and honestly about highly emotional issues. Thus, Eddie's sexual orientation is never mentioned by name, not by him or his mother. While the factories closely associated with Pocatello and the individually run businesses have disappeared, homophobia is still present. Cameron Scroggins' Max is neither free of his drug habit or his narrow views of homosexuality.
But this isn't a Gay play but one whose main character happens to be Gay. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Eddie's almost religious belief that Pocatello is the place for him to have a sense of belonging — which is remarkable given the unspoken homophobia that has even affected his relationship with his mother. The threatened closing down of the restaurant and a rare visit from brother Nick and his wife, fuel his desperate attempts to save the restaurant, and with it what he sees as his heritage.
Knight's touchingly gentle yet intense Eddie represents the play's voice of hope for a good life in the face of American Dream shattering trends. As a counterpoint, to Eddie's optimistic insistence that trying to fix the restaurant's problems by making it less of a cookie cutter mold place is worth the effort, there's the teenaged Becky (a fine Off-Broadway debut for Leah Karpel). As she sees it, life is a black hole of inedible food, non-listening teachers and miserable marriages such as that of her parents. Eddie's persuading Becky to work for him is our first inkling that the play's dim world view might actually brighten. For sure their interchanges add some of the play's lighter touches.
There are other on the mark one-on-one scenes to bring the different points of view to vivid life. The two biggest heart-wrenchers involve a scene between Becky and her grandfather Cole (the always terrific Jonathan Logan) and Eddie's final middle of the night dinner with his mom (a superb Brenda Wehle).
Davis McCallum steers the actors in and out of the restaurant booths, exit and kitchen area with the same care and vigor he brought to Hunter's previous plays. Sound designer Matt Tierney punctuates the between scene pauses with aptly chosen music. Lighting and costume pros Erick Southern and Jessica Pabst round out Playwrights Horizons' as usual excellent production values.
When I reviewed The Great Wilderness at Williamstown I commente that it might be time for Mr. Hunter to move away from Idaho as his creative wellspring. But now that I've seen Pocatello, I recommend another trip to Idaho — especially since you need travel no further than Playwrights Horizons' Main Stage on West 42nd Street.
Links to reviews of other Samuel D. Hunter plays
The Few - Rattlestick 2014
Hunter's The Whale- Playwrights Horizon 2012
Hunter's A Bright New Boise-The Wild Project, 2010