'A Bright New Boise' review — unpacking big questions in a big-box store
Read our review of Samuel D. Hunter's Obie Award-winning play A Bright New Boise, now making its Off-Broadway debut with Signature Theatre through March 12.
In A Bright New Boise, playwright Samuel D. Hunter turns the cheerless break room of a big-box arts-and-crafts superstore into a setting to explore big ideas about faith and family. While those notions are individually intriguing, they don’t cohere into a collective impact in this work first seen off-off Broadway in 2010.
The drama revolves around seemingly mild-mannered, 30something Will (Peter Mark Kendall), newly transplanted to Boise from a small community in northern Idaho. We meet him during a Hobby Lobby job interview with Pauline (Eva Kaminsky), a no-B.S. manager who’s worked overtime to make her store a success. Pauline hires Will on the spot even though he’s vague about personal questions on the application. Why’d he leave that earlier job off his resume? No emergency contact? What’s up with that?
Early on, Will reveals one reason he’s come to Boise – and this store – after meeting Alex (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio), a 17-year-old coworker who was adopted as a baby by a local couple. Petulant Alex removes his earphones just long enough to tell Will to buzz off. But that’s 180 degrees from Will’s desires – and there’s a reason why.
While Will seeks to connect with Alex, he’s also running from his past. After a series of clunky, hesitating half-hints, we discover Will’s association with a cult-like church whose leader caused the death of a young follower named Daniel. A late scene underlines the similarities between Daniel and Alex, repeating what has already been said.
Will’s link to the infamous church comes out thanks to Alex’s protective older adoptive brother Leroy (Angus O’Brien), a visual artist who fashions graphic tees when he’s not stocking shelves at Hobby Lobby. Also on hand is Anna (Anna Baryshnikov), a sensitive and reserved coworker who hides in the aisles at closing time so she can stay after hours to read alone in the break room.
In a convenient twist, Will similarly hides out so he can write his blog, a work that reveals his religious beliefs. Will regularly summons the rapture – “Now. Now. Now.” Alex, meanwhile, often talks about killing himself. It’s just a matter of time before this five-character collision turns messy. Hunter’s message, which seems to be about who Will is and who he wants to be for Alex, ends up more murky than bright.
Director Oliver Butler’s staging of Hunter’s breakthrough play is uniformly well-acted. It simmers with subtle unease. Per the script, the break room TV runs nonstop images of either gross surgeries or two men droning on. You can’t catch a break in this place rendered and lit in evocative detail by set designer Wilson Chin and lighting designer Jen Schriever.
It’s easy to appreciate that A Bright New Boise is by the same author of later plays like The Whale and A Case for the Existence of God — and not just because the setting is Hunter’s home state of Idaho. He’s always drawn to characters trying to connect and finds drama in the everyday. Even though the play doesn’t fully succeed, those dramatic hallmarks make it worthwhile.
Photo credit: Peter Mark Kendall and Ignacio Diaz-Silverio in A Bright New Boise. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
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