By: David Sheward
"I don’t know where I live," sighs Eddie, the misbegotten hero of Samuel D. Hunter’s deceptively simple yet hugely affecting new play Pocatello, at Playwrights Horizons. This shattering cry of despair is uttered in an even voice by T.R. Knight who plays Eddie with painfully real insight, after he recites a seemingly endless list of local landmarks: Starbucks, Home Depot, Walmart, Staples, etc. Nothing is unique to the titular Idaho town, taken over by brand-name chain outlets, like the rest of America. Pocatello is probably best known to show-biz types as the site where Judy Garland’s character was "Born in a Trunk" in A Star Is Born, but to Eddie, a manager of one of those generic restaurants, it’s his home.
His great-grandparents settled here, but his current family is distant, either physically, emotionally, or both, ever since the suicide of his father. His employees are rudderless. One of the waitresses remarks that theirs aren’t the kind of jobs you care about, you just show up and try to have a good time while mindlessly performing your tasks. To compound his lack of community, Eddie is gay in a red state where the word "gay" isn’t even mentioned.
He’s not the only one with troubles. Waiter Troy (Danny Wolohan) is coping with an alcoholic wife (Jessica Dickey), a senile father (Jonathan Hogan) and a bulimic daughter (Leah Karpel) while former drug addict Max (Cameron Scoggins) is struggling to stay clean and Isabelle (Elvy Yost) does her best scraping together a living. It sounds like a soap opera, but Hunter whose had depicted other lonely Idaho souls in such plays as A Bright New Boise, The Whale, and The Few, turns it into a symphony of small-town angst. The expert liming of the ten-member cast and Davis McCallum’s masterful direction gives full voice to each character’s yearning and despair.
Take the opening scene, we’re in designer Lauren Helpern’s detailed faux-Italian restaurant, perfect in its banal pseudo-hominess down to the salt shakers. Sound designer Matt Tierney’s tinny Musak rendering of country hits plays over the loudspeakers. Two different dramas are taking place at once with dialogue often overlapping. Eddie’s family including his complaining mother Doris (Brenda Wehle) and visiting brother Nick (Brian Hutchinson) and his sister-in-law Kelly (Crystal Finn) are at one table while Troy’s bickering clan are at another. The frazzled Eddie, trying to connect with and impress his relatives, is running in and out as are the entire waitstaff. In lesser hands this sequence would be incomprehensible, yet under McCallum’s hand, we understand each character, why they are there and what they want.
The entire company is first-rate but Knight as the pathetic Eddie and Wehle as the crotchety Doris are especially heart-breaking. In the final scene, mother and son make a silent truce over a midnight meal of gluten-free pasta. They chat about their town’s lack of community and the whereabouts of old friends as old wounds are quietly healed. It’s a shattering and simple moment in one of the best plays of recent years.
Dec. 15-Jan. 4, 2014. Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., NYC. Mon., Tue., 7 p.m.; Fri., Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., Sun., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m. Running time: one hour and 40 mins. including intermission. $75. (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.
Photography: Jeremy Daniel