Big Box Laughs in Boise

09/16/2010 1:50 PM |

A Bright New Boise
Written by Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Davis McCallum

Samuel D. Hunter's plays track broken families limping forward, trying to walk off their misery. In Jack's Precious Moments the brother, widow and father of a man beheaded in Iraq go looking for answers; in Five Genocides a widow tries to carry out the mad obsession that consumed her husband, despite his parents' apprehensions; and in A Bright New Boise, having its premiere with Partial Comfort (through October 2), Will (Andrew Garman), a tall, sweetly shy middle-aged man hopes to reconnect with his prickly, panic attack-prone teenage son Alex (Matt Farabee), whom he gave up for adoption. Will's reputation, or rather that of his former church, a radical Christian congregation upstate that disbanded in scandal after a young member's death, precedes him, and Alex's righteous brother Leroy (John Patrick Doherty) sets out to rupture the rapprochement. Hard not to grow close at the Hobby Lobby, though, a big box crafts supply store where all three work after Will's arrival in Boise in the opening scene. The setting's break room comedy (on Jason Simms' perfect realist set) and flickers of romance alternate with Will and Alex's tentative, sometimes reluctant and closely monitored attempts to build a relationship.

Reversing the crisis in Hunter's two recent plays, faith is a certainty in Boise, and family constantly needs reaffirmation. Will never stops believing in god, though he rarely seems certain of his capacities as a father. Leroy's parents, who adopted Alex, are described early on as a pair of feuding drunks and never mentioned again. The Hobby Lobby offers bits of both spiritual and parental guidance. Something between a dysfunctional family and a splintering cult, its maniacal manager Pauline (Danielle Slavick) developed a god complex while rebuilding the faltering franchise into a profitable store. Her shouting matches with Leroy have airs of habituated marital battles. He, an aspiring artist, tries to convert customers with shock therapy by donning a series of hilarious typographic t-shirts. "Soccer moms and grade school kids and little old ladies," he tells Will proudly, "they all have to confront the reality of the words before they get their arts and crafts supplies. You want a foam ball? Fuck. You want some acrylic paints? Cunt. You want some pipe cleaners? You Will Eat Your Children." The only other employee we see—although Mandy, in a running gag, is constantly called and cursed, but never shows—Anna (Sarah Nina Hayon) has tried every chain store in town, but likes hanging with Will after hours in the break room. A TV in the corner streams corporate dogma 24\7, except when crossed satellite signals turn to a gruesome medical channel.

Hunter fills out these mundane lives and locales with superb details and compassion, and director Davis McCallum (who also helmed Five Genocides) makes transitions from family drama into workplace comedy quick and smooth. Save the very effective whooshing sounds that beam us into every scene, like a TV zapping to life before the screen lights up, Boise adheres more closely to strict realism than Precious Moments and Five Genocides. The excellent cast stretches the emotional verisimilitude a little when the play's at its funniest—which is quite often—while Will and Anna's tentative chemistry resonates especially well in the calmer passages. The most difficult scenes, between estranged father and son, suffer from an emotional distance between the actors larger than that between their characters. Garman and Farabee lose some of the play's dynamic intensity in those exchanges, though that's nothing a fade-to-black and brisk zap into the next scene won't solve. Uncertainties about the importance of family don't seem to run as deep as the skepticism reserved for organized religion. The final flourish of surrealism closes Boise more ambiguously than recurring intimations of doom and disaster would lead us to expect. If it lacks the relatively tidy emotional takeaways of Hunter's previous plays, it's also more rooted in a place and culture. Boiseans: they're just like us!

(photo credit: Stephen Taylor)