“There are plenty of unhappy people in the world, why should we be the ones who get to be happy?” says one of the ten characters in “Pocatello,” the new play at Playwrights Horizons by the newly anointed MacArthur Foundation “genius” playwright Samuel D. Hunter. “Maybe we’re just unhappy people.”
That’s for sure. All ten characters we see in a tacky chain restaurant in the dead-end town of Pocatello, Idaho are unhappy, each in their own way.
T.J. Knight, best known for Grey’s Anatomy, portrays Eddie, the manager of an unnamed family restaurant that some might recognize as an Olive Garden, which the chain is about to shut down for lack of business. Eddie, desperately trying to keep it going, has kept its imminent closure a secret from his staff.
Eddie has designated this “Famiglia Week” in the restaurant, encouraging the other employees to bring their families. We meet Eddie’s own family, which includes his disapproving mother, and his long out-of-touch brother, who is visiting Pocatello with his wife, having long ago gotten the hell out of his hometown. Eddie’s father, we eventually learn, committed suicide when Eddie was 13.
Troy, Eddie’s high school friend, has worked at the restaurant for eight years, and brings along his Alzheimer-inflicted father Cole, his alcoholic wife Tammy, and his sullen, bulimic teenage daughter Becky, who says things like “I just like hate everything about life.”
Then there is waiter Max, a meth-head living in a court-ordered halfway house, and waitress Isabella, whose parents died in a car crash when she was 12.
Hunter has written about unhappy people before, proving himself a skilled and compassionate dramatist in such memorable and engaging works as “The Whale,” which focuses on a man trapped in his 600-pound body. But here, the unhappiness feels both static and piled on. Perhaps the difference is in Hunter’s choice this time around to present so many characters, whose collective and cumulatively dreary lives push us away rather than draw us in. It’s an interesting contrast with the other play about unhappiness that opened this week, the solo show “Every Brilliant Thing,” which offers its character – and the audience – a way out.
I did a search of Pocatello, which is a real town of about 54,000 in Idaho with an unemployment rate of 3.8 percent, far lower than New York City’s (The latest news headline: “Four more cows escape from Pocatello meat plant.”) Surely there are some happy people there.
If “Pocatello” doesn’t register as effectively as Hunter’s previous work, it is receiving a first-rate production, with good ensemble acting directed by Davis McCallum, and a spot-on design. There are also richly observed, simultaneously authentic and comic moments, such as one in which Eddie admits uncomfortably to his staff that he’s gay – without anybody actually saying the word “gay.”
“You know I’m bi,” says Max the methhead (Cameron Scoggins) after an uncomfortable pause.
Max: No, really. I don’t fall in love with a gender, I fall in love with a person. I’m attracted to people.
Eddie: Have you ever—…?
Max: Oh, no. I mean not that I wouldn’t. I just—. It hasn’t come up.
By Samuel D. Hunter; directed by Davis McCallum; sets by Lauren Helpern; costumes by Jessica Pabst; lighting by Eric Southern; sound by Matt Tierney; production stage manager, Lisa Ann Chernoff.
Cast: Jessica Dickey (Tammy), Jonathan Hogan (Cole), Crystal Finn (Kelly), Brian Hutchison (Nick), Leah Karpel (Becky), T. R. Knight (Eddie), Cameron Scoggins (Max), Brenda Wehle (Doris), Danny Wolohan (Troy) and Elvy Yost (Isabelle).
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission.
Pocatello is scheduled to run through January 4, 2014