Ignore that “Oh, no, not one of those again” feeling you get shortly after the curtain goes up on Hunting and Gathering, the New York-based drama which opened Thursday at Amphibian Stage Productions.
There is a massive body of plays dealing with the lives of youngish Manhattanites who whine about everything that moves — the difficulty of finding a good apartment, the character flaws of a certain bagel topping, the impossibility of catching a cab in the rain and no end of other matters of earth-shattering importance to New Yorkers, whom we are repeatedly told are the only people on the planet who really matter.
This play by Brooke Berman revs its engine and begins to roar down that over-traveled road in the early going. The characters immediately start moaning about the challenges of Big Apple real estate and all the romantic relationships they have screwed up.
But then something happens in this show that does not happen in those others — it gets interesting.
The characters in this show are a diverse quartet of planets orbiting the sun they call New York. The trouble, however, is that their orbital paths are not true, which makes them subject to a series of near-misses and outright crashes.
College lit professor Jesse (Sam Swanson) appears to be the most stable of the bunch. He has a real job and once had a real marriage. But he found a way to ruin that by having an affair with Ruth (Lydia Mackay), a rudderless craft of a woman who bounces around from one low-paying education and social service job to another while teetering on the edge of homelessness. Jesse’s younger half-brother, Astor (Garret Storms), is the personification of useless youth. He is even more nomadic than Ruth and has “unemployable” written all over him.
And then there is Bess (Kelsey Summers).
At 20, this cupcake stuffed with a cherry bomb is the youngest of this motley crew, and is even more self-centered than the rest (if such a thing is possible). She develops an unlikely attraction to Jesse while auditing one of his classes and does not hesitate to let him know it. Throughout the show, Bess’ unfiltered honesty is as terrifying as it is entertaining.
These characters, who state their cases in a series of monologues delivered to the audience between interactions with one another, are totally unlikable but sharply written. They do get a little pretentious at times (one of Jesse’s recounted romantic memories takes place in front of a Rothko painting, for example), but they are mostly train wrecks that you can’t turn away from. Plus, Bess is about as much fun as any actress could ever hope to have.
All four players do a superb job, whether flying solo or yoked to one of the other characters. Storms lays it on a bit thick at times, but never takes things too far while being laser-locked into his character. Mackay is somewhat miscast in this very young troupe, but she makes us care about her character and serves as a stout maypole for the other three to circle. Swanson has the least enviable part, but he captures the pitiful malleability of his character wonderfully. Summers’ performance absolutely crackles with a level of talent that belies the fact she is still a theater student at TCU.
The direction by Harry Parker, who heads the TCU theater department, is as smart as the script and the performances. He moves his players artfully around the sleekly minimal set by Bob Lavallee, which is nicely lit by Fred Uebele’s design. On the page, this show threatens to talk itself to death. But Parker refuses to let that happen.
So go spend an evening with these four people whom you hope you never actually have to meet. From the safe distance of your theater seat, these hapless, star-crossed lovers can be surprisingly engrossing.