‘A Bright New Boise’ by Samuel D. Hunter, Sardonic, Devastating and Profound, a Review
In A Bright New Boise, Samuel D. Hunter’s sardonic, dark play about events that take take place in a Hobby Lobby break room, the award-winning playwright (A Bright New Boise, The Whale) acquaints us with characters that may be more alien to our cultural beliefs and economic well being than individuals we might converse with in another country. Acutely directed by Oliver Butler and currently running in its Off Broadway Premiere at the Signature Theatre until March 12th, Hunter and Butler reveal a sometimes funny but mostly tragic, portrait, and a cross-section of another America reflected in the 90 minute play’s characterizations, plot and themes.
Hunter opens the play with protagonist Will (the superb Peter Mark Kendall) who, facing the audience, stands at the side of the road, eyes closed, concentrating. Then, he says one word as if to call into existence, time and place, “something.” Four times he says, “Now.” By the play’s conclusion, we understand his cryptic pronouncement which produces only a vast emptiness and “never works.”
In the second scene we meet the feisty, hyper-organized, store manager Pauline, portrayed by the excellent and humorously volatile Eva Kaminsky. Pauline interviews Will for a sales position in the break room at Hobby Lobby, Boise which in 2010 (the setting) is owned by an Evangelical CEO who runs the company as a Christian organization. During the interview Pauline makes Hobby Lobby’s conservatism clear when she reminds Will, “no unions,” explaining that a Hobby Lobby in Kansas was shut down when employees tried to unionize. The economy is struggling, there is little opportunity for those without a college education and the big box stores like Hobby Lobby are the expansive grand employers of the moment. Thus, the minimum wage that Will readily accepts (under $8.00 an hour) is the best for his circumstances and is an offer he dare not refuse for a reason more important than financial. This, we learn with the introduction of another character in the break room, taciturn teenager Alex (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio).
Will’s apparent emotional dislocation is made clear in Kendall’s superb performance. From his evasive and contradictory responses to Pauline’s questions, we understand he needs money and appears to be in unusual life circumstances because he is unable to give her a reference or emergency contact. However, he is hired so that Pauline can continue to run her “tight ship.” He begins to socially settle in by striking up a conversation about music with Alex who is taking his break and wishes not to be disturbed.
Hunter immediately establishes Will’s additional intentions and enjoins the main conceit of the play, “abandonment” and “loss,” setting in motion the conflicts with a shocking surprise. Spoiler Alert: Will announces he is Alex’s father and he proclaims that Alex was named after him so his real name is also Will. Fortunately, Pauline returns and interrupts Will’s announcement. Simultaneously, the TV whose satellite glitches vie between graphic surgeries and monotonous conversations between two Hobby Lobby male employees, snaps back to the Hobby Lobby’s conversational monotony about how to sell products. And a disturbed Alex walks out as Pauline tries to make a joke most Americans would understand, if they have been culturally plugged in for the last two decades.
However, Will doesn’t get the joke or the celebrity associated with it, and even if he did, Kendall’s Will appears overwhelmed about introducing himself to his son. He could care less about Pauline’s attempt to make him feel comfortable and appears lost in his thoughts about how he will negotiate and respond to the brutal questions from Alex that are sure to come.
Will’s deadened reaction is another clue that ties in to Hunter’s characterization of a hapless, unsound father, whose adopted son he has desperately sought out by getting a job at a Hobby Lobby, instead of using another means to contact him that is less traumatizing. From this first turning point of many, the revelations between and among characters spin out as surprises continue in a grotesque emotional and psychological maze that Alex, Leroy, Alex’s brother (Angus O’Brien) and employee Anna (Anna Baryshnikov) inhabit in the coldly remote, depersonalized break room of the Boise, Idaho Hobby Lobby. The sterile, severely lit space is perfectly ironic as a symbolic setting where they attempt to go to relieve the stress of their job, but end up frantically confronting a hellish swamp filled with regrets from their past. The result exacerbates the demeaned alienation of each of the characters who have lost their way and whose religion is unable to help and in fact makes things worse.
By degrees we learn the backstory of Alex and Will. Instead of clarifying toward comfort in a way to salve emotional hurts, by degrees Alex with stress and strain in his questions puts together the puzzle why Will has come to establish a relationship with him. Eventually, after Will reveals the truth of where he lives, the joy his church gave him and the events which transpired there, Alex appears to forgive him and defend him to his brother Leroy who fears Will has another motive for wanting to see Alex. In a secondary plot to enhance the characterizations, Anna and Will stumble upon each other in a darkened break room after hours, which seems even more sinister (the TV is still on vying between blood and guts and boring Hobby Lobby guys).
Anna sneaks her way in beyond closing hours by hiding in various sections of the huge store unnoticed. We learn she does this to avoid her father and brother’s criticism of her always reading and we get the sense that she is a misfit without a medium to feel comfortable in until she has a few conversations with Will whom she likes. Will is homeless; we eventually learn why and what happened to him. Furthermore, he is afraid to sleep in his car.
Their conversation gives occasion for Will to read parts of his Evangelical “End Times” blog to her, which he intends to make into a novel. Anna is taken up with the notion she has met a writer whose work she likes and she encourages him. It is then we understand the extent of his beliefs and his hope of being taken up in the Rapture (often used as a fund raising tactic by Evangelical Mega Churches) away from the wicked hell that has been perpetrated in the culture and on the earth by sinners who must be saved or perish in damnation. We also understand that he feels he has a purpose in converting people before it’s too late. He tells Alex he has to believe in God because the alternative is terrible. He would have to look at himself as an utter failure as a father, whose triumph is working in Hobby Lobby, while he lives in his car. Will tells Alex, “There are greater things in life. There have to be.”
Will gradually works his way into Alex’s world by asking to hear the song Alex wrote with his friend. He praises some of Alex’s poetry. However, Leroy is incensed about Will after he reads articles about Will’s former church and especially after Alex appears to favor Will over his adoptive family and tells Leroy he is changing his life plans. Leroy lashes out in revenge against Will after Pauline affirmed that it doesn’t matter what people’s personal beliefs are, as long as they are on time and do their jobs. However, Leroy involves Hobby Lobby in his revenge, making it impossible for Will to work there. Leroy and Will’s conflict has broken Pauline’s rule to maintain order as the status quo. After working for four years to make the store profitable and organized, she will not allow their conflict to drag it into the chaos that Will has brought with his presence. (Eva Kaminsky’s affirmation speech about Pauline’s taking the store to profitability earlier in the play is corporately magisterial and humorous.) Thus, Will, the last to be hired will be the first to be fired, aside from the fact that Alex and Leroy’s talents make them indispensable.
How events further evolve are both surprising and expected. However, when Leroy confronts Will about Alex, the result is uncertain and unpredictable. Hunter’s writing is freshly wrought and organic. The characters are well-crafted and their motley and unique differences meld well with each other for maximum tension, which abides throughout. By the conclusion Hunter ties Will’s injunction to God, “Now,” and explores another reason why Will seeks out Alex for comfort in a relationship that is not destined to grow closer or even continue unless Will makes a decision to change.
The play is wonderful on many levels. Hunter allows us to get under Will’s skin and into his soul which is both horrifying and sadly authentically truthful if one has been around certain Evangelical sects for more than a few days. Importantly, though we might not be able to put ourselves in Will’s shoes, Kendall portrays Will with empathy and pathos thanks to Butler’s incisive direction. Thus, we can understand his emotional guilt and torment and his desire to be a better person, the point of his religious journey, which becomes sidelined. The relationships Hunter establishes are woven with heightened drama. Alex feels a misfit and is emotionally traumatized by Will moving on a roller coaster of emotions through to the play’s conclusion. That Will doesn’t consider another way to get in touch with Alex speaks to his inner turmoil and disregard for Alex’s feelings and response. However, Will’s need to see Alex is urgent and has to do with the “Now” that is the final puzzle piece that unfolds in the flashback at the very end.
The terrific and terrifying set design by Wilson Chin and jarring fluorescent lighting and vibrant neon lighting in the road scenes by Jen Schriever are evocative and symbolic. That the appliances (i.e. microwave, VCR, etc.) barely function and little attention is given to popping up the color to make a unique, interesting or warm environment speaks volumes about Hobby Lobby, the employees and Pauline who is the epitome of the loyal, harried worker bee manager. The break room set, props and lighting reference the respect that the corporate officials have for their employees in a nullifying environment that is neither challenging, purposeful or life affirming. Hunter conveys the sense of Big Brother when Eva explains to Will as a blind, deaf and dumb team player that it’s a “pretty great company” that knows how to run a business, because everything is “hooked up to the corporate office.” Then, she cheerfully states, “We can’t even turn the air conditioning on without calling Oklahoma.”
The Hobby Lobby envisioned by the director and playwright and what fuels it, also reflects the nature of the commercial culture that creates consumer robots whose function least of all is a purposefully human one. That Will, Alex and Leroy refer to a job there as something loathsome by which to define oneself is further irony because the store is incredibly profitable, if money is its Christian measure of success as the prosperity gospel likes to portray. That Will has accepted religious rhetoric as his mantle and believes the world needs to be destroyed becomes particularly sardonic considering Hobby Lobby’s function and value system as a Christian organization with tenets about love, forgiveness and acceptance.
Another of the themes of the play is manifest in the characterization of these conservative Christians who are devout, yet are incapable of applying the tenets of the religion to their lives to achieve peace and fulfillment. Along with the themes of abandonment, isolation, and purposelessness that nullifies comes the important irony that Hunter relates at a time (2010) before the religious political movement grew into what it is today in 2023 in the culture wars, book bannings and civil rights curtailments. The hypocrisy, spiritual unhappiness and emptiness tied to a culture that is broken and breaks those who live in it to seek other ways to escape (through the belief of the Rapture) Hunter’s ironic play underscores. The play was humorously prescient then, more frightening now. A Bright New Boise is an ironic expose of the worst of Christian sects’ hold on the minds of those like Will and others.
Kudos to the creative team not mentioned before which include April M. Hickman (costume design) Christopher Darbassie (sound design) Stefania Bulbarella (projection and video design). This is one to see especially for the ensemble work, the fine performances and direction that teased out the actors’ efforts to be spot-on authentic. The creatives did a smashing job to fulfill the director’s vision of A Bright New Boise. For tickets go to their website.