Seeking a Place of Refuge Off Broadway
There is something absolutely contrary to a Broadway play, something that resides in a private, inner space. Here the gestures are as big as they appear to the inner eye, regardless of whether the guy in the back row notices them or not. And that is what going to an Off-Broadway show is all about – about uncovering a secret… the songs of a young Jonathan Larson (“Rent”), or a first-time role for the likes of Dustin Hoffman.
One could wish to find those surprises in “Hunting and Gathering”, Brooke Berman’s new play at Primary Stages. Instead, what we get is an elementary exercise in playwriting, one in which characters speak directly to the audience rather than to one another, and what they tell us is not so terribly compelling. Even Ms. Berman’s comic dialogue sounds like observations lifted from parkslopeparents.com, as when Bess a Columbia undergrad, describes the apartment she’s sharing. Reading the letter (or email) she’s sending her parents, Bess recites, “It’s obviously a white liberal ghetto for Wesleyan grads with Asian babies. Honestly, I’m over the entire borough.”
As played by Mamie Gummer, Bess is one of the recognizable “types”, more “hunter” than her acquaintance Ruth, whose biblical name signals her nomadic existence. It’s Ruth (Keira Naughton) whose apartment-hunting quest is the soul of the story, which to sum it up, is about youthful survival amidst the perils of New York City’s real estate boom. With more to say about the dearth of affordable apartments than the plethora of unaffordable relationships, the playwright introduces Ruth’s ex-husband, Jesse.
Jeremy Shamos who developed a multitude of quick stroke characters in the improvisational show “Gutenberg! The Musical!” plays Jesse, a Columbia literature professor who doesn’t have much character at all. In fact, his relationship with Ruth, or rather his failure to achieve one, remains ambiguously ambivalent. Much more focused is the dalliance between Ruth and her brother-in-law Astor (named for the subway stop, not the person) in which the blemish of bad behavior rears its ugly head. In this role Michael Chernus invents yet another one of the mangy roles he’s played Off- Broadway, like the sibling rival in “American Sligo” or one of the drug-crazed miscreants in “Finer Nobler Gases”. Fortunately here, everyone remains clothed! And Keira Naughton (daughter of Tony-award winning James Naughton) sustains her apartment-searching role with finesse in spite of some obviously labored lines. There’s the opening monologue in which she delivers a list of nearly 30 apartments she’s lived in accompanied by a slide show, a phone call which leads to a climatic discovery, and finally reading from the classifieds. The latter, as archaic as any tribal ritual, is quickly supplanted by surfing Craig’s list. But it’s Bess who is the comic target, and Mamie Gummer plays the role with a cocky arrogance. Ms. Gummer who portrays the young version of Meryl Streep’s character in the movie “Evening” is also her real life daughter.
Some credit goes to David Korins whose artful set, a slew of cardboard boxes, reveals a multitude of pads within a towering urban sykscrape. But director Leigh Silverman who has created shockingly intimate relationships in such offbeat plays as “Oedipus At Palm Springs”, can’t seem to gather the pieces that would make the play seem whole.
By… Isa Goldberg