Review: Rude t-shirts and rude awakenings in 'A Bright New Boise'

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Review: Rude t-shirts and rude awakenings in 'A Bright New Boise'
From left, Angus O’Brien, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio and Peter Mark Kendall in a revival of Samuel D. Hunter’s “A Bright New Boise” is at the Signature Theater in New York, Jan. 29, 2023. An early play by Samuel D. Hunter finds the author developing his voice by lending it to the lost souls working at an Idaho Hobby Lobby. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Jesse Green

NEW YORK, NY.- For most who attempt it professionally, playwriting is a hopeless job, with few opportunities to break in and fewer to advance. So it’s a pleasing irony that playwright Samuel D. Hunter, the reigning bard of American economic dead-endism, has managed such a vibrant career.

His trophy case is crowded with prizes: Obie, Whiting, Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, MacArthur. The film adaptation of his 2012 play “The Whale” is up for three Academy Awards at next month’s ceremony. Even more impressive is that, at just 42, he’s had 11 New York City stage premieres in 12 years, from the jumbly satire of “Jack’s Precious Moment,” his local debut in 2010, to the sublime heartbreak of “A Case for the Existence of God” in 2022.

“A Bright New Boise,” also from 2010, was the first of Hunter’s plays to achieve widespread notice, and with good reason. It introduced the radical sympathy of his voice and the quietly despairing people who evoked it. These were characters that few playwrights paid attention to: low-wage earners, many working at local branches of national chains, mostly in Hunter’s native Idaho. They struggle with the fallout of economic devastation and the emotional kind so tied up with it. Searching for faith, they must face its insufficiency.

So interpret with caution the title of “A Bright New Boise,” which opened Tuesday in a taut Signature Theater revival directed by Oliver Butler. It takes place in the break room of a local Hobby Lobby, on a deadly accurate set by Wilson Chin featuring a malfunctioning microwave on the counter and soporific motivational programming on the closed-circuit television. That the programming is occasionally interrupted by surgery-cam videos — a scalpel probing an ear is how this production begins — baldly warns us that we are in for something deeper and more upsetting than mere corporate uplift can obscure.

The focus of that upset, we understand at once, is Will (Peter Mark Kendall), a man nearing 40 who is interviewing for a cashier’s position at $7.50 an hour. In 2010, when the play is set, that’s just 25 cents above the federal minimum wage, yet he accepts it willingly. Why?

The proud, efficient and bilious store manager, Pauline (Eva Kaminsky), is all business; her upswept hair is a pincushion of pens. But Will is clearly in some kind of trouble. He answers her questions haltingly, the holes in his speech and his resume suggesting the damaged places in his soul. When asked for an emergency contact, even one that “doesn’t have to be local,” he has none to provide.

A bit too methodically, Hunter introduces three of Will’s new co-workers, and here the play, though slightly revised since 2010, begins to betray some early-career awkwardness. One co-worker is Anna (Anna Baryshnikov), a skittery young woman drawn to Will in part because most of the men she meets “are pretty much terrible.” In Will she thinks she recognizes a kindred spirit; they both hide out at closing time — she among the silk flowers; he in scrapbooking — so they can spend evenings reading and writing in the break room.

But even though Anna has real grit and sadness to her, she feels peripheral to the deepest currents of the story: a shore bird, not a fish. So, too, is Leroy (Angus O’Brien), a bro-y Master of Fine Arts candidate at Boise State who makes T-shirts featuring aggressive phrases like “You will eat your children” and wears them to work as performance art. (The costumes are by April M. Hickman.) Although it’s Leroy who precipitates the play’s crisis by uncovering Will’s past, the comic and tensioning purposes to which he’s put don’t blend, making him more of a convenience than a character.

Only the third co-worker, Alex (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio), is as central to Will’s story as he is to his own. To say how would be to spoil the plot, but Alex is quite a creation: a sullen high school student who has panic attacks, listens to Villa-Lobos on his iPod and is looking for something — in life as in himself — that isn’t a lie or a letdown. When we learn that Will is suffering a terrible disappointment of his own, a disastrous evangelical past he’s trying to shed, we see the crash coming.

It’s a mark of Hunter’s patient construction that these Big Issues are usually rooted deeply in the plot, not sprinkled on top of it. In one of the play’s best scenes, Alex, freaking out over a $187 discrepancy Pauline has discovered in his register receipts from the previous day, allows Will to help him search the receipt rolls for the error. There’s no obvious reason that such a dull project — it takes several minutes — should make dangerous, believable, feelingful theater but it does.

Actually, the believable part is no mystery; Hunter’s first job was at a Walmart in Moscow, Idaho. Nor is the dangerous part really so surprising: As a teenager Hunter attended an evangelical school for more than four years. He writes about the intensity of fellowship offered by charismatic leaders as vividly as he does the threat to individuality that comes with it. For Will, who came of age in that world, mainstream churches are little more than Hobby Lobbys — national chains selling discount goods.

That he engages your sympathy instead of (or along with) your repulsion is the essence of Hunter’s gift. It’s a gift not just of human connection, but of theatrical compaction, a nuclear pressure he applies to people in distress. In that, “A Bright New Boise” anticipates the more sophisticated dramaturgy of his more recent plays, which less and less require extra characters. “A Case for the Existence of God” has only two until its coda.

But “A Bright New Boise” sprawls. Despite Butler’s swift and confident staging and the fine work of the cast — and the hilariously corporate lighting, sound and video design — the play sometimes seems like a game of marbles, its five characters, each energized by trouble, banging up against one another in patterns that seem both random and overdetermined.

It’s still a compelling play, worth seeing in itself and as a map of what would follow. Also as a map of what didn’t. When Leroy, explaining the philosophy behind his T-shirts, says he’s “forcing people to confront words and images they normally avoid,” you hear him ventriloquizing for Hunter. In a short time, though, the confrontations became invitations, and the T-shirts great theater.

‘A Bright New Boise’

Through March 12 at Pershing Square Signature Center, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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