May 10, 2014

"The Few" Doesn't Fully Add Up to Much

The Whale, a play about a 600 lb. man eating himself to death, won Samuel D. Hunter a spot high on the leaderboard of hot young playwrights. But I was so simultaneously fascinated and repulsed when I saw it at Playwrights Horizons two seasons ago that I asked my theatergoing buddy Bill to write the post about it (click here to read what he wrote).

Still, I was really curious about what Hunter would do next. The answer for New York theatergoers is The Few, which opened this week at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

Hunter has all the hip credentials, including degrees from NYU, The Iowa Playwrights Workshop and Juilliard. But he grew up in northern Idaho, went to fundamentalist Christian schools and is interested in the kinds of outside-the-mainstream folks that many other playwrights overlook (click here to read an interview with him). 

Like The Whale, The Few aims to treat its characters and their story without condescension or sentimentality. But, alas, this time out, Hunter is less successful.
His central figure is Bryan, an ex-trucker who gave up the road, started a magazine filled with soulful essays about the long-distance life and then abandoned it and his girlfriend QZ to take off for parts unknown. During his four-year absence, QZ has kept the magazine going by downsizing the poetry and depending instead on personals ads and on Matthew, a gay teen who's become an all-around gofer and defacto little brother. 
When the lights come up (they stalled at the opening night performance my friend Priscilla and I attended) Bryan has suddenly reappeared in the crummy trailer that serves as the publication’s office and over the next 95 minutes the three of them struggle with integrating him back into their lives in a succession of scenes that each ends with a blackout.
The theme of small people with big dreams and an aching need to connect to someone else is underscored repeatedly, especially in a series of phone calls that are supposed to be coming from people wanting to place ads seeking companionship. 
The first two or three calls, all heard over the answering machine speaker, are mildly amusing but the device quickly loses its charm. I wanted to rip the phone cord out of the wall long before Bryan eventually tries to do it during one of those drunk scenes that playwrights seem to throw in whenever they’re looking for easy laughs or a convenient way for a character to expose exposition-required secrets. 
Still, the actors commit fully. Michael Laurence is appropriately intense as Bryan. Tasha Lawrence combines just the right mix of wounded pride and wary desire that defines women like QZ. Meanwhile, Gideon Glick, a master of the offbeat line reading, is appealingly quirky as Matthew. 
And, given the limited space and budget that the Rattlestick can provide, director Davis McCallum does what he can to keep the action moving along. The problem is that the play doesn’t seem to know where it wants to go. Hunter clearly feels for his characters but too many decisions are made for the sake of the plot, instead of for the sake of the people within the plot.
Nevertheless, the opening night audience, filled with family and friends (including the hip composer Nico Muhly who was also at another downtown show I saw the previous night) was noisily supportive. I’m not so sure, though, that a less connected audience would be.   

As for me, I may have been underwhelmed by The Few but nobody bats 1000 and even this misfire displays enough of Hunter's empathetic gifts that I'm again looking forward to seeing what he does next

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