The opening scene of Pocatello is a fast spaced Altmanesque sequence with colorful, overlapping dialogue, where its ten characters are all introduced. Taking place in that Idaho town and set in a faltering, generic, Italian, chain restaurant, the despair of these people is poignantly dramatized.
Two families are having gatherings, one a birthday celebration for a grandfather, and the other a strained reunion. With its perfect blend of comedy and drama, the play presents an authentic microcosm of contemporary life in small town USA.
Troubled marriages, teenage angst, the ravages of old age, drug addiction, the aftereffects of parental suicide, homosexuality, the stagnant economy and alcoholism are among the issues that author Samuel D. Hunter explores in his finely written and sharply observed play. Each character is vividly defined and comes across as a believable individual. Mr. Hunter creates the optimum amount of conflict and tension to sustain the play’s seven seamless scenes that are performed straight through without a break.
A great benefit to the show is the expansive and visually realistic set design of Lauren Helpern. It looks like a specific recreation of an Olive Garden style restaurant. Bright and cheery, with two levels of tables, chairs, and booths, wine bottles on display, travelogue photographs of Italy on the walls, lots of breadsticks, iceberg lettuce salads, and “mozzarella things,” all add to the precise actuality.
Davis McCallum’s great direction combines the excellent realization of the physicality of the staging, with the highly successful emotional achievements of the actors.
The work of lighting designer Eric Southern and sound designer Matt Tierney expertly enhance the scene transitions in terms of time and mood, with the variance in lighting and mixing of songs. That the ten actors look exactly like they’re supposed to, whether wearing waiters’ uniforms or ordinary clothing, is due to Jessica Pabst’s appropriately inspired costumes. Each of these roles is also exquisitely cast.
As the general manager of the restaurant, T.R. Knight gives a heartbreaking performance in creating a richly sensitive portrait of a good-natured soul trapped by his self imposed limitations and who is unraveling. Brenda Wehle as his icy mother forcefully conveys her taciturn passive aggressiveness and also winningly switches gears to show her complexities. Jonathan Hogan is indelibly moving as the grandfather, a 77-year old Korean War veteran whose lucidity varies. Jessica Dickey’s brash performance as an embittered wife with a drinking problem is painfully raw.
Brian Hutchison’s portrayal of the archetypally successful brother losing control of his emotions is powerful. Danny Wolohan is charmingly solid as a waiter facing personal challenges. With animated intensity, Cameron Scoggins is quite compelling as a troubled young waiter. Elvy Yost’s ebullience as a young waitress is infectious. As the rebellious teenage daughter, Leah Karpel’s bright performance transcends the familiar clichés of such a role. Though given relatively brief on-stage time, Crystal Finn is highly effective as the peacekeeping spouse.
This brilliant production of Hunter’s Pocatello is characterized by tremendous depth in characterization and engaging simplicity in presentation. Leo Tolstoy famously observed, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Here, a clash over gluten-free pasta becomes a memorably chilling pretext for psychological warfare.
Pocatello (through January 4th, 2015)
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279–4200 or visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission