A dour cloud of melancholy hangs over “Pocatello,” Samuel D. Hunter’s latest fractured-family drama, currently at Playwrights Horizons.
Pocatello is the name of the bland Idaho town — it really exists, by the way — reeling from the closing of its vital paper mill some years back. Now it’s overrun with soulless strip malls and vile chains, like Best Buy and Walmart and Applebee’s, that cater to a pathetically low common denominator. Hunter could just as well have named the play “Peoria.” Or “Bumfuck.”
The only ray of hope in this bleak terrain is Eddie (T.R. Knight), a zealous manager of a faltering Italian restaurant franchise. You know, the kind of place festooned with Chianti bottles and plastic grape vines on the ceiling (Lauren Helpern designed the realistic, appropriately dismal set). To lure his family members, acutely estranged after the tragic death of their father years ago, to an overdue reunion, Eddie has cooked up “Famiglia Week,” a lame promotion where families of employees get discounted meals.
Eddie’s family members, sadly enough, are having none of it. His long-absent older brother (Brian Hutchison) flew in with his wife (Crystal Finn) from afar and can’t wait to get the hell out of there. His petulant mother Doris (Brenda Wehle), upset that there’s no gluten free pasta option, wants out as well. No amount of free bread sticks can keep them there.
At the next table is another miserable clan. Troy (Danny Wolohan), one of the servers, has invited his wife Tammy (Jessica Dickey), his elderly dad (Jonathan Hogan), and his angry teen daughter Becky (Leah Karpel, too old for the role), who is obsessed with questions of food sourcing.
“There’s genocide happening right now,” shrieks Becky. Later, she appears to be reading the classic Upton Sinclair meatpacking exposé, “The Jungle.” One can imagine she has a tattoo on an upper thigh that says “Meat is murder.”
The kind-hearted Eddie tries to fashion an alternate family from his hapless staff, even requiring them to attend a group lunch every Thursday. This surrogate family, however, is no less grudging than his real family.
Like the restaurant that’s slated to close in two weeks (Eddie hasn’t told his employees yet, ramping up the dramatic tension), these characters are truly hurting. Depression, alcoholism, bulimia, dementia, meth addiction, and suicide all come into play. As with the eatery itself, Eddie works overtime to try and save them.
Question is, who’s going to save Eddie?
Knight leads a uniformly fine cast, portraying Eddie with a tender, aching delicacy. As pressures mount, we can see the cracks in his cheery veneer grow sharper and deeper. A nervous breakdown seems only one callous insult away.
Although Knight has forged an impressive career onstage, he’s best known for his Emmy-nominated role in “Grey’s Anatomy.” You may recall his abrupt 2009 departure not long after he came out publicly as gay when the tabloids reported that co-star Isaiah Washington called him a “faggot” (Washington was subsequently fired, though he made a surprise return guest appearance in May 2014). Last year, Knight married his partner, Patrick Leahy, in an intimate ceremony in Hudson, New York.
The theatrical landscape is strewn with dysfunctional family dramas, and under the clear-eyed direction of Davis McCallum, “Pocatello” charts a few patches of new territory. Not only are these extensively flawed, poor souls aching from the economic realities of lost industry and a consumer culture run amok, but they also unwittingly build elaborate fortresses against authentic human connection.
Hunter, who wowed critics with “The Whale” and the similarly themed “A Bright New Boise” in recent years, has plenty to say about an atrophied America. But there are too many moments where his ideas and his characters trip hopelessly over one another.
“You know you can choose to be a happy person,” Tammy snips to Becky. This unruly yet poignant drama proves, no matter how furiously we try in today’s artificially flavored, cookie-cutter, chemically sprayed world, it’s just not that simple.
POCATELLO | Playwrights Horizons, Mainstage Theater, 416 W. 42nd St. | Through Jan. 4: Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2:30 p.m., Sun. at 7:30 p.m. | $75-$95 at ticketcentral.com | One hr., 40 mins., no intermission