Restaurant Serves Up Desires for Family, Belonging in a Hungry America
By Lauren Yarger
No matter how bad times get, we always have family. But what happens if that’s not true? Where do we find our sense of roots, belonging and support then?
These are the questions raised in Pocatello, the premiere of a new play by award-winning playwright Samuel D. Hunter at Playwrights Horizons Off-Broadway in New York.
Pocatello is a small town in Idaho, where Eddie (T.R. Knight of TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy” fame) runs an Italian chain restaurant franchise that he is pouring his own savings into to postpone the closing that corporate is telling him must occur. The restaurant is everything to Eddie: his claim of a place in his hometown and a source of existence for his extended family of employees.
That group consists of Max (Cameron Scoggins), a drug user who is grateful to Eddie for giving him a job when no one else would; Isabelle (Elvy Yost), a waitress who utters profanity while trying to keep service running smoothly; and Troy (Danny Wolohan), who took a waiting job to avoid a move that would make his daughter, Becky (Leah Karpel), have to switch schools when he lost his job at the local paper mill. They all appreciate Eddie. He’s the best boss, after all, since he puts up with their trysts in the back room, pot smoking and hasn’t had the heart to tell them that the restaurant needs to close.
His idea to sponsor an employee “Famiglia Week” doesn’t go over so well, though, since dysfunctional is a mild term for the family members who come for dinner.
Troy’s alcoholic wife, Tammy (Jessica Dickey), wonders whether she would have been better off with old beau Eddie while coping with Tory's father, Cole (Jonathan Hogan), who suffers from Alzheimer's, bulimic daughter Becky who can’t eat anything -- especially meat -- because of the processes used in preparing it. She rattles on excessively about cows getting caught in slaughter machinery and promptly sours the evening.
Eddie’s mother, Doris (Brenda Wehle) can’t seem to find anything on the menu she likes either and brother, Nick (Brian Hutchinson) can’t wait to get out of the place. Is it his loathing of being back in the town that holds bad memories of his father, or is it that he is uncomfortable around his homosexual brother? The only one who seems genuinely pleased to be there and to make an effort at reuniting family is Nick’s wife, Kelly (Crystal Finn), who urged her husband to make the trip home.
Davis McCallum, who directed Hunter’s sensitive and moving play The Whale at Playwrights in 2012, returns here and creates an atmosphere (with the restaurant set designed by Lauren Helpern and music/sound ambiance designed by Matt Tierney) that keeps us interested. Knight, in particular, delivers a solid portrayal of a man losing control, but unable to figure out what to do to make things better.
The play itself is flawed. Too many people thrown at us in the opening scene with run-on conversations makes it difficult to figure out who’s who and what is going on. In addition, Wehle doesn’t look old enough to be Eddie’s mother, so at first I thought she was Nick’s wife and the young-looking Finn was their daughter making it even more confusing.
The action evens out, but Hunter, who is a 2014 MacArthur Foundation “Genius,” fails to take us as deeply into the characters as we need to go. What exactly happened with Eddie and Nick’s father? Why did Eddie and Doris become estranged and what motivates her to make a renewed effort to reach out to her son?
We leave with a feeling of despair in an atmosphere where family relationships appear to be going the same way as small-town life -- replaced by chains and strip malls rather – rather than with hope in the staple of family relationships, which I think is on Hunter’s take-out menu.
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