Samuel D. Hunter made a splash a couple of years ago with “The Whale,” an offbeat play about a 600-pound man determined to eat himself to death as a desperate protest gesture. Compared to that highly original piece, his new play, “Pocatello,” presents itself as a structurally ambitious, but basically conventional, domestic tear-jerker about a sensitive gay man who can’t get any love or respect from his cold-hearted relatives or the clueless employees he considers his extended family.
Eddie (T.R. Knight, sweetly boyish), the sad young man we are meant to take to our hearts, manages a national chain restaurant of uncertain quality — most likely an Olive Garden, given the cheesy “Italian” decor supplied by set designer Lauren Helpern. But whatever food they’re serving here, it’s certainly nothing native to the small town setting of Pocatello, Idaho.
Nothing, in fact, seems native to Pocatello these days. Eddie makes this painfully clear, in the most urgent and honestly felt scene in the play, when he delivers an impassioned rant against the Starbucks and the Burger King and the Wendy’s and the McDonalds and the Safeway and the Staples and the K-Mart and the Best Buy and the Payless and the Home Depot and all the other soulless chain businesses that have taken over his hollowed-out hometown and made it indistinguishable from all the other hollowed-out hometowns across America. His plaintive lament — “I don’t know where I live, anymore” — is one that should strike a chord. But it comes much too late to save the play from its aimless drifting.
Helmer Davis McCallum (who was also the guiding hand of “The Whale”) has put together a sturdy ensemble cast to play the patrons and staff of this woebegone eatery. It’s a good group, not so interesting individually but collectively a vivid microcosm of a once-typical American hometown where people used to own their own modest businesses or make a decent living at the saw mill and other small industries, all of them long gone.
But the scribe seems to have written his play from the inside out. While all of this rich social context is significant, it’s only context. The actual subject of the play is the breakdown of families — primarily Eddie’s fractious clan, but also the families represented by the staff and patrons of his failing restaurant.
Hunter’s main focus seems to be on the mechanics of keeping his full house (of ten characters) all talking at the same time without engaging in any meaningful conversation. To achieve this objective, the scribe uses the plot device of having Eddie and his head waiter Troy (Danny Wolohan) presiding over parallel family gatherings. Troy’s unhappy clan — his non compos mentis father (the outstanding Jonathan Hogan), his alcoholic wife, Tammy (Jessica Dickey), and their rebellious daughter, Becky (Leah Karpel) — is just sad. Eddie’s fractious family — formidable mother Doris (the formidable Brenda Wehle), nasty older brother Nick (Brian Hutchison), sister-in-law Kelly (Crystal Finn) — is full of fury.
Although there’s no escaping the sound of their voices, it’s easy to tune them out, once it becomes clear that no one is listening to anyone else, let alone responding to what anyone else is saying. Hunter’s point seems to be that families use language like a weapon, to hurt and wound and even kill. But for all that glib talk, there is no actual communication. A master plot manipulator like Alan Ayckbourn can pull off this mechanical trick, but Hunter’s simplistic (and deeply annoying) technique — of having characters simply evade or ignore direct questions put to them — isn’t the way to go.