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Pocatello: In brief
Samuel D. Hunter's sensitive, truthful plays (such as The Whale and A Bright New Boise) have earned him many plaudits, including a MacArthur "genius" grant this year. In his latest piece, T.R. Knight stars as the manager of an Italian chain restaurant in Idaho. Davis McCallum directs the premiere for Playwrights Horizons; the cast includes Jonathan Hogan, Brian Hutchison and Brenda Wehle.
Pocatello: Theater review by David Cote
At the unnamed Italian-style eatery where Eddie (T.R. Knight) is the manager, the bill of fare is what you’d expect: bread rolls, pasta and plenty of cheap rosé. But the characters in Samuel D. Hunter’s skillful and moving Pocatello tend to consume other, less savory dishes: crow, pride, humble pie and a steaming mound that looks like chocolate mousse but isn’t.
Gustatory jokes aside, Pocatello is another of Hunter’s explorations of community and isolation in Idaho, humanely rendered and shrewdly structured. The Gem State, as it has been mapped by this empathetic writer (a recent MacArthur “genius” grantee), seems to be largely populated by lonely, self-sacrificing gay men, precocious,angry teens and women in dead-end or failed marriages (all types that figured in 2012's The Whale). Of course, the biggest recurring element in Hunter’s regional oeuvre is the state itself: landlocked, going-nowhere Idaho. If Hunter’s characters left this purgatorial prairie zone, they might find happiness—but we’d lose a compelling play.
Hunter’s writing achieves a new level of technical complexity from the opening scene: 10 characters, parties at two separate tables and lots of overlapping dialogue. It’s Famiglia Week at the joint, and Eddie is using the opportunity to get his chilly, estranged clan together. But brother Nick (Brian Hutchison) and emotionally repressed mother Doris (Brenda Wehle) have no stomach for fond reminiscences. Nick has long since legged it for the Twin Cities, and Doris seems pathologically averse to spending time with her sons, both of whom grew up shadowed by their father’s suicide.
Among the subplots that amplify or thwart Eddie’s increasingly desperate attempt to find or re-create some sort of family are drug-using–but-decent waitstaff, and the fractious domestic woes of waiter Troy (Danny Wolohan), who has a bitterly moralizing daughter (Leah Karpel) and a father (Jonathan Hogan) with dementia. In a powerful scene toward the end, Hunter puts the latter two center stage for an impromptu meal, with Eddie mutely watching and having a vicarious emotional epiphany. Lives lived in quiet desperation while familiar landmarks fade away: This sort of material has been treated before, but in Hunter's hands it strikes keen, ringing notes.
His theme is the tug of the past on the present, especially when historical space (hometown buildings) is demolished by corporate space (Eddie’s recitation of Pocatello chain stores is outright tragic). The ensemble is excellent under Davis McCallum’s strong direction, with Knight outstanding as the pained, polite center, a Vanya of the Northwest proferring plastic flowers, a food-service worker who eats his heart out.—Theater review by David Cote
THE BOTTOM LINE Hunter makes us glad to revisit Idaho.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote