Monday night I visited Soho’s soon-to-shutter Ohio Theater, which is right in the middle of its second-to-last festival ever, Clubbed Thumb‘s Summerworks 2010 (next month’s Ice Factory 2010 will be the last), to see the latest from playwright Samuel D. Hunter, Five Genocides, whose previous show Jack’s Precious Moments had just closed the day before at 59E59 Theaters(its principle cast and director were sitting in the row behind me). Though technically the festival is off-limits to reviewers—let’s just say that the play is excellent, the company perfect, and the superb Carmen M. Herlihy particularly prone to scene-stealing with her stunning deadpan delivery—it gave a good sense of the interests and themes that shape the style of a promising young playwright.
Briefly, Jack’s Precious Moments concerns the twin brother, widow and father of Jack, a contractor who was kidnapped and beheaded while building cell phone relay towers in Iraq. Set in a magical realist Middle-American milieu, it follows the various coping mechanisms the trio resorts to while visiting the Precious Moments chapel, where Jack’s widow wants to have her late husband memorialized as one of the kitschy ceramic figurines. Extremely funny and sharp in its portrayal of lower-middle-class culture and the increasingly polarized position of religion in America, Precious Moments loses a little momentum in the late going, but mixes up its narrative trajectories so that one character is always in crisis, another is always feeling a little better, while another is emotionally comatose.
Five Genocides features many similar tropes, from a death in or around the opening scene, to a generally dismissive attitude towards nuclear families tempered by a subtle understanding of the very real and legitimate significance of working-class kitsch. Donald, who dies early on but reappears throughout (kind of like Jack in Precious Moments), went mad with pessimism of the “why participate in our world when everything we do is furthering the gradual destruction of our culture” variety while finishing a dissertation on five genocides (Holocaust, Armenia, Cambodia, etc.). His 8-months-pregnant widow decides to finish the book with the help of her co-worker Dixie, while Donald’s parents (a serial-repressing, high-pitch-voiced mother and dying, boozing father) unravel.
In both works, Hunter sets a family into a vicious downward spiral, and offers a choice between total abandon and some kind of escape, often via a more spiritual character (Chuck in Precious Moments, Dixie in Genocides). Low-tech tack abuts postmodern media: the Precious Moments figures and glue-sniffing in the former, and the jumbled, loose-leaf manuscript and innumerable dog figurines in the latter; set against the web video of Jack’s beheading and the cathartic video game therapy that Dixie proposes. Crises of faith abound, especially for the men—from religion to false prophets and the social contract—while female characters are most often the ones who figure a way out.
Just three years out of his MFA program, and recently graduated from a Julliard playwright-in-residence program, Hunter is still young, but completely confident, handling the ambitious themes and subjects he grabs hold of with impressive dexterity. Whatever he does next will undoubtedly be worth seeking out, but for now don’t miss Five Genocides, at the Ohio through Saturday.