A famous agent used to instruct clients never to set a scene in a bus: Americans don’t mind stories that are sad, he said, but they draw the line at downmarket depressing. Apparently Samuel D. Hunter, who is only 33, has smarter representation. In his plays, which collectively earned him a MacArthur “genius” grant this year, downmarket depressing is usually the high point. The Whale, for instance, concerns a 600-pound man eating himself to death. Rest is about the last three inhabitants of an old-age home. Pocatello, his latest, at first seems even less enticing: It takes place entirely in a failing sub–Olive Garden franchise in the title city, which is also failing. Only one of its ten characters has much hope of reasonable happiness; most of the others actively steer in the other direction as if swerving to avoid a skunk. And the ones who do keep trying are doomed, usually by their own blood relatives. But we know all that from the start. Not just because the entire cast is onstage bickering as the lights come up on a cacophony of rancor, but because of the colorful foil letters strung above the plastic indoor shrubbery and faux-Italian décor. They spell out FAMIGLIA WEEK.
It’s downhill from there, and yet at their best, Hunter’s plays are as funny and trenchant as they are wrenching. His characters, likable or not, are rounded enough to justify their desperation. In Pocatello, that desperation is personal, civic, and corporate, all at once. It’s not just that the restaurant is heading into the dumpster if business doesn’t quickly improve. A similar deadline seems to hang over its manager, a sensitive 30-something nice-guy named Eddie. As played quite beautifully by T.R. Knight, he has the almost obsequious modesty of a neat little person who lives in terror of attracting notice or causing harm. At any rate, he has already seen what happens when businesses fail. His father, who owned a nearby diner, lost it when the city began to be overrun by chains, and he killed himself soon thereafter.
But Eddie is not just a placard representing the national problem of disappearing local industry; he is the quietly gay son of a mother who is almost comically disagreeable and belittling. (Doris is furious that the restaurant doesn’t offer gluten-free pasta.) He is also the younger brother of a big, handsome guy who made a success of himself by getting out of town. (Nick is a Realtor in St. Paul.) As the conservator of the family grief, Eddie is the toxic reminder of what the other two would rather forget. His attempts to force his mother and brother back into any sort of intimacy with him are therefore beset at every turn with withering, heartbreaking refusals, just as his attempts to save the restaurant (and his three waiters’ paychecks) by any means he can think of are miserably misbegotten. (He even inflates the nightly take with cash from his own savings.) Pocatello is not just a play about middle-class jobs but about a middle-class Job.
In this, it sometimes gives off the stink of masochism. There are only so many times you can watch sweet Eddie cheerfully try to feed an ungrateful family his non-gluten-free dishes without beginning to feel that he is wallowing in his punishments. But perhaps that’s what Hunter wants to explore. (I don’t know to what extent the play may be autobiographical; Hunter is gay and grew up in small-town Idaho, but he escaped.) The secondary stories are more explicitly about the unlikelihood of repair. One waiter is a “former” meth addict whose theory of recovery seems to be a hair of the dog that bit you. Another waiter’s wife is a willful alcoholic. Her 17-year-old daughter throws up most of what she eats but says she is not bulimic because she’s not doing it out of concern for her weight. (She’s upset about the chemical and capitalistic implications of modern food production.) And the girl’s grandfather, whose hardware store was another casualty of American mallification, is now slipping into the relative comfort of dementia. “Lucidity is overrated,” he says.
Having all this family dysfunction in one room, along with the perfectly replicated hideousness of scripted foodspeak — “You want the Zuppa Siciliana or the Zuppa Tuscana?” — makes clear Hunter’s intention of drawing a parallel between the two types of disaster. What Nick did literally to save himself, Doris did figuratively: cut and run. It’s also what Eddie’s corporate masters are doing. And it’s no accident that the one character who seems to have the emotional wherewithal to survive this and any forthcoming economic downturn is someone whose parents both died when she was 12. Hunter is asking us to look at the collateral damage caused by saving oneself at the expense of others, whether at the scale of the national economy or the people sitting across the table at dinner. When Nick’s well-meaning wife tells Eddie what everyone else already knows — “Maybe it’s not worth fixing” — she means the restaurant. But we cannot help hearing a devastating comment on the family and the city, if not the country, as well.
Hunter has described his approach to playwriting as “an experiment in empathy,” and to that extent, Pocatello is another big success. He is greatly abetted in this by daring performances from everyone in the cast, with special kudos to Brenda Wehle as the hellish mother and Leah Karpel as the non-bulimic teen. Neither they nor the others, under Davis McCallum’s fearless direction, let any character point be prettied or act of aggression dulled. And Hunter is smart enough to give us, eventually and quietly, the respite of full emotional release, which Knight has the skill to bring off. But until then, the play sometimes seems strangely invested in torturing the characters and, by proxy, us. Hunter hasn’t completely mastered the cranky mechanism by which plays dissipate certain energies while compressing others almost unbearably. Even at just an hour and 40 minutes, Pocatello thus seems long. It’s an honorable work, important in its way, and often almost rollicking in its grimness. But, as the restaurant learns despite Famiglia Week, there are diminishing returns on desperation. If you’re going to have Job as a character, he should not be a chore.
Pocatello is at Playwrights Horizons through January 4.