By Ron Fassler . . .
Samuel D. Hunter’s A Case for the Existence of God was, for my money, the best new play of 2022. With his A Bright New Boise now playing on the same Irene Diamond Stage at off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre, inevitable comparisons are bound to be made. First produced in 2010 at the Wild Project in New York City, A Bright New Boise was the winner of a 2011 Obie Award for playwriting. Since then, he has excelled with such works as The Whale (2012), Lewiston/Clarkston (2018), The Harvest (2016) and Greater Clements (2019), all of which I have seen. To say I’m a fan is an understatement.
If A Bright New Boise, a dark comedy, feels like an early work that’s because it is. Hunter only received his artist’s diploma from Julliard, the one-year graduate-level fellowship in playwriting in 2009, a year prior to the play’s premiere. Set in Idaho, where nearly all of his plays take place, the familiar territory on display has been better explored in later achievements. Always concerned with connection, Hunter’s characters are mostly at sea or on its rocky shores. His specialty is damaged people. It’s no different with the employees at this particular Hobby Lobby store in Boise, where a mismatched group of odd types gather on and off in the play’s main setting, its breakroom. First introduced is Will (Peter Mark Kendall), a man nearing forty and impacted by a tremendous (and recent) blow to his deeply religious faith. Alex (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio) is an eighteen-year-old part-time worker who is revealed, very early on, to be the son Will gave up for adoption at his birth. Leroy (Angus O’Brien) is Alex’s stepbrother, who has a deep and abiding affection for Alex. Anna (Anna Baryshnikov), a sweet but complex co-worker, suffers from some trauma we never quite get to know about; and Pauline (Eva Kaminsky), is their boss, desperately working to keep chaos at bay at all costs, using language once described as capable of “making a sailor blush.” It’s an eccentric group, and Hunter, while good at delineating their personalities and voices, is less successful in keeping the play from being driven by a strong purpose, unfortunately getting stuck in a few bogs along the way.
Questioning religion is a perennial Hunter topic and one he wears on his sleeve (just look at the title of the aforementioned A Case for the Existence of God). In Boise, Will’s psyche has been decimated from having been part of a cult whose leader is now imprisoned for murder. From all we hear, it’s a miracle only one of the parishioners was fated to die, though Will is sadly like the walking dead himself. Yearning for a relationship to potentially give him a reason to live is why he seeks out the son he gave up after so many years. That the son is suicidal makes for major difficulties.
Director Oliver Butler has encouraged most of the actors to maintain a sameness that doesn’t do the storytelling any favors. Yes, the characters are stuck, but it’s a mistake to use that trait to define them. Most of the talented actors in this five-person cast seem straightjacketed by it, with only Eva Kaminsky staying above the fray by sheer force of will. Her performance could easily be one-note, but she finds a symphony in her stories. Again, a talented cast, but as one example, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio goes for surly and doesn’t vary it one iota. A little charm could have gone a long way in addition to his teenage angst; but, instead, he comes off charmless.
The unit set from Wilson Chin is bland and colorless (as it should be), and April M. Hickman’s costumes are appropriately simple and unadorned. Jen Schriever’s lighting design suits various times of day with specificity, and the downstage area is lit to good effect to occasionally convey the outdoors.
In the sense that anything by this playwright deserves to be seen, recommending A Bright New Boise will not send anyone down the wrong path, flaws and all. And come April when the Pulitzer Prize for Drama is announced and the recipient turns out to be A Case for the Existence of God, I for one, will be jumping for joy on Samuel D. Hunter’s behalf.
A Bright New Boise. Through March 12 The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues). 100 minutes, no intermission. www.signaturetheatre.org
Photos: Joan Marcus