A Bright New Boise: Theater Review

Matthew Elkins and Heather L. Taylor in "A Bright New Boise"
Observant slice of life of the minimum-wage working class in the service economy, laced with issues of revelatory faith from a playwright with a distinctive voice.

Playwright Samuel D. Hunter won an Obie Award last year for this dark comedy, which deals with themes of family, religion and responsibility.

Set in the breakroom of a Hobby Lobby chain outlet in Boise, Idaho, A Bright New Boise begins with a job interview for a cashier’s position. Will (Matthew Elkins) is newly arrived in the big city from the obscurer northern regions of the state, and he is carefully grilled by store manager Pauline (Betsy Zajko) to confirm his antipathy to unions and his willingness to work 38 hours a week, just shy of full-time employment.

For his part, Will projects a vibe of excessive compliance born of desperation. He quickly exposes his true motives, revealing to an adolescent employee Alex (Erik Odom) that he is in fact his biological father who put him up for adoption as an infant. His checkered history of religious zealotry unfolds more gradually with an increasingly free-floating sense of menace and ultimately wreaks havoc with everyone at the Hobby Lobby, all propelled by Will’s stubborn conviction of his bountiful motives of good will and humility.

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Playwright Samuel D. Hunter this week was awarded the prestigious Whiting Writing Award, and Boise earned him an Obie Award and a Drama Desk nomination for its New York run in 2011. He clearly is someone working from a place of particular sensibility and a bracing sensitivity to class concerns without condescension. His dialogue pops without artifice, and he gives actors playable characters with some ring of both familiarity and originality. He has no truck with cliches or reflex attitudes, though his characters make frequent recourse to both.

Hunter builds tension expertly while he conscientiously examines themes of responsibility within a complex web of social rituals, and he has genuine insights into how manners provide both a mask for and an expression of inner drives. While his characters might be ignorant, they are portrayed not only as not stupid but as thoughtful as they know how. Nevertheless, as the action advances in the second act, the play’s development tends to stall, the explosions of incident ultimately less satisfying than the intrigue of the slow burn leading up to them.

Still, the play’s central premise that belief in an apocalyptic Rapture is motivated by a core sense of meaninglessness in one’s quotidian existence has profound implications to which the drama is more than adequately equal.

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The text is exceedingly well-served by this polished production. Director John Perrin Flynn displays his customary supple style in teasing out subtle gradations in the interplay, and his measured rhythm respects the play’s intricate pulse of escalating conflicts.

Elkins as Will must confront a devilishly challenging role, and he musters the contradictions of his character convincingly, though one senses his repressed power will grow during the course of the run. Odom as the troubled teen seems a true find, latching onto a Skip Homeier-like intensity without affectation, achieving a poignant credibility where there could have been merely posturing. Zajko interestingly makes her management whore into perhaps the most rational of all the characters, genuinely dedicated to clear goals and maximizing outcomes even where there are no good options.

Trevor Peterson as Leroy, Alex’s adoptive older brother, finds great wit in his art school rebelliousness trapped in an unlikely location, and Heather L. Tyler as a hapless fellow employee supplies some leavening pathos to balance out Will’s compulsive proselytizing.

Venue: Rogue Machine Theatre, Los Angeles (runs through Dec. 9)

Cast: Matthew Elkins, Erik Odom, Trevor Peterson, Betsy Zajko, Heather L. Tyler, Ron Bottitta, Rob Dodd
Director: John Perrin Flynn
Playwright: Samuel D. Hunter
Set designer: David Maurer
Lighting designer: Leigh Allen
Sound designer: Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski
Costume designer: Lauren Tyler
Producers: John Perrin Flynn, Edward Tournier, David Combs