Samuel D. Hunter is one playwright who legitimately deserves to be called eccentric. In “The Whale,” which picked up some prestigious awards last season, the central character is a 600-pound literary genius who’s deliberately eating himself to death as a protest against his Mormon church. The characters in the scribe’s new play, “The Few,” don’t achieve that level of weirdness. But as the founders of an offbeat magazine designed to help Interstate truckers cope with the crushing loneliness of their occupation, they certainly qualify as peculiar — in an interesting way.
In 1999, even people living in trailers off Interstate 90 in northern Idaho are spooked about the Y2K bug that might come in with the Millennium. “Will planes fall out of the sky?” they ask themselves. “Will there be world-wide blackouts?” At the very least, civilization would be plunged into “a world-wide depression” — which is pretty much the theme of this smart and sensitive, if not totally realized, play.
Hunter’s quirky sensibility has found a kindred spirit in helmer Davis McCallum, who gives his capable thesps the freedom to explore the dark side of their depressive characters. When the lights come up on Dane Laffrey’s grim set of a double-wide trailer doing office duty, Bryan (Michael Laurence, convincingly haunted) and QZ (Tasha Lawrence, dukes up) are warily discussing the changes she’s made to their trucker newspaper in the four years since he walked away from it. These performers know what they’re doing, and the dynamic between the onetime lovers they’re playing is fraught with tension, sexual and otherwise.
When Bryan was in charge, “The Few” was a safe outlet for truckers to express their inner poets. Under QZ’s more disciplined editorial hand, the newspaper is making a profit as a clearing house for personal ads. The phone calls that come in while the former partners are glaring at one another are good illustrations of this change in direction.
“Looking for lady co-pilot to navigate end times,” dictates one caller named Danny. “Spacious bunker with comfortable bed, running water, and tape deck. Can withstand four megaton blast.”
Like QZ, the audience would kinda like to know where Bryan has been these past four years. Judging from the state he’s in — filthy clothes, skinny frame, ragged haircut, and wild, wild eyes — it can’t have been anywhere very pleasant. But Hunter isn’t one for the dramaturgical niceties, and we have to sit tight, for no convincing reason, while the scribe builds up a sense of mystery. When prodded for clear answers by QZ or by her young protege, Matthew (boyish Gideon Glick, sweetly vulnerable), Bryan either gets roaring drunk or sets his jaw and glares into the middle distance.
Hunter can really write, in a style that finds bleak humor in the saddest, most painful situations. So, even when his characters aren’t really saying anything, it’s a pleasure to listen to them weaving threads of dialogue that may end up in knots.
“If you ask us what our agenda is, we’ll tell you that we don’t know” is how Bryan and QZ and their deceased partner, Jim, once declared themselves. “If you ask us why we started a newspaper for truckers, we’ll tell you it’s because we had to.” In their idealistic youth, they used to think they were reaching out to these lonely guys — saving their lives.
These are voices strong enough to speak up for themselves, which is why all that withholding is so maddening. And in the end, when Bryan and QZ’s closely held secrets are finally disclosed, they aren’t nearly as moving as the voices of those anonymous truckers whose plaintive messages remain unanswered.