The Problem With Unlimited Breadsticks: Pocatello

01/05/2015 9:15 AM |
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street

Samuel D. Hunter’s new play Pocatello begins with a hubbub of overlapping conversation at an Olive Garden-like restaurant run by Eddie (T. R. Knight), who has invited his brother, Nick (Brian Hutchison), and his mother, Doris (Brenda Wehle), for a family week event. Though it never leaves this restaurant, Hunter’s play is a landscape that stretches out and then contracts and then stretches out again, accommodating the needs and feelings of ten closely drawn characters all at once and then narrowing down to their one-on-one interactions. Hunter adds so much insightful detail about each of his people that they feel thick with life and possibility, and the actors dig into their roles like they’re feasting on a huge Thanksgiving dinner.

Family is touchingly important to Eddie, who is quietly falling apart because he doesn’t want to tell his employees that the restaurant will be closing in two weeks; he has even been dipping into his own savings to fill the cash register. Desperate for some kind of closeness to another human being, Eddie tries to engage with his brother—who is only visiting their hometown of Pocatello, Idaho—and his distant mother, with whom he used to be close, but a planned reminder of their shared past ends in an embarrassing meltdown for Nick. Though nothing Eddie does turns out right for him, he remains doggedly, vaguely optimistic.

All of the characters are unhappy in one way or another, and they are aware of that fact. Hunter has a persuasive faith in a certain kind of self-aware smartness that might offer some small consolation or relief, and he understands the conflicts of these particular people in this particular small town American milieu. He feels for the awkward Doris and her need not to talk about things, and he also feels for the overly intense but entirely reasonable anger of the teenaged Becky (Leah Karpel), the daughter of one of the waiters. Hunter has his points to make about what has happened to towns like Pocatello when all small businesses have given way to anonymous franchise restaurants and stores, but this is just the backdrop for the larger issue of what Eddie wants and feels he’s lost. The depressing artificiality of the “Italian” restaurant, with its unlimited breadsticks and bad pop music always faintly playing in the background, is a poor substitute for the intimacy and particularity that Eddie craves.

There comes a point near the end of Pocatello when the pain of the characters is almost too much,
or has become too insistent and concentrated, but then this disperses calmly, carefully, and wonderfully in the last scene, when Eddie demands that his mother come and have dinner with him in the middle of the night. After the radical lack of connection in the first scene, the finale feels both prosaic and momentous, heightened yet realistic, and this complexity is a mark of Hunter’s considerable achievement here.