NEW YORK (AP) — The loss of individuality in small-town America takes a beating in "Pocatello," a new play by Samuel D. Hunter, whose dark comedy "The Whale" was well-received off-Broadway in 2012. The death of local culture and small family businesses by relentlessly advancing big-box franchises is the villain in Hunter's quirky, sometimes bleak new work.
A touching production, which somehow succeeds at being both heartbreaking and funny, opened Monday off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. Recession has wreaked havoc with the local economy and job market in Pocatello, Idaho, exemplified by two families whose dysfunction is coming to a boil.
An excellent cast, thoughtfully directed by Davis McCallum, brings freshness to seemingly stereotypical characters and economic misfortunes. The play centers on Eddie, impressively played with sweet vulnerability and smiling desperation by T.R. Knight. In his late 30s, lonely and gay, Eddie manages a failing Italian chain restaurant.
The lives of his staff and fractured family appear to be rapidly sliding downhill in scenes that play out in the restaurant beneath a huge overhead sign ironically proclaiming Famiglia Week. Troy, a friend of Eddie's desperately trying to hold his own unhappy family together, is given a slump-shouldered, patient determination by Danny Wolohan. Troy's and Eddie's families have multi-generational roots in a Pocatello that doesn't exist any longer, which makes Eddie feel adrift and nostalgic, while Troy simply feels trapped.
Brenda Wehle provides lively crankiness as Eddie's dismissive, widowed mother, Doris. She and his distant older brother, Nick (Brian Hutchison, effectively remote), seem determined to avoid the family gathering that Eddie doggedly keeps trying to arrange.
Troy's alcoholic wife, Tammy, (Jessica Dickey, radiating dissatisfaction) hates everything about her hardscrabble life, and blames Troy. Their daughter Becky, (a wonderfully grumpy performance by Leah Karpel), has amped up normal teen angst into an eating disorder and an obsession with genocide that provide a lot of the show's dark humor. Troy's father Cole, (Jonathan Hogan), has dementia, yet Hogan gives delightful gravitas to Cole's occasional lapses into sensibility, as when he gently advises Becky, "Lucidity is overrated, remember that."
Some youthful servers lighten the mood, with Elvy Yost as a perky waitress and Cameron Scoggins as a bungling, ex-meth-head waiter. Although Eddie feels disconnected from the town he once knew, he keeps trying to reach out to the people he loves. But will anyone hear him over the roar of their own unhappiness?