The title of Samuel D. Hunter’s 90-minute, one-act play The Few might be a reference to the familiar military recruiting slogan “The Few. The Proud. The Marines.” In fact, it’s the somewhat grandiose name of a modest newspaper for truckers — a publication whose content and purpose are a matter of heated onstage debate.
Call the play instead The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Trucker. The real subject of this regional premiere, through April 7 at Norristown’s Theatre Horizon, is the possibility and difficulty of human connection. The extremity of the trucker’s plight becomes a metaphor for the emotional conundrums we all face.
Hunter, author of The Whale (produced in 2015 by Theatre Exile) and a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” recipient, writes sharp, involving dialogue for characters at the social margins. Set at the turn of the millennium, at a moment of Y2K panic, The Few is something of a nostalgia trip — to a bygone era of clunky computer monitors, floppy discs, answering machines, and print newspapers whose profits flowed from classified advertising.
As the action begins, we’re in small-town Idaho, in a trailer (Christopher Haig’s marvelously dilapidated and detailed set) that serves as the newspaper’s office. Absent for four years, Bryan (Steven Rishard) has unexpectedly shown up, and he’s got some explaining to do to his erstwhile girlfriend and business partner, QZ (Suli Holum): Why did he walk out in the first place? And why is he back?
We learn quickly about a precipitating tragedy: the death, in a highway crash, of their best friend and fellow trucker-journalist Jim. In Bryan’s absence, QZ has hired Jim’s nephew, Matthew (PJ Barth, in his first professional acting gig), to help out. And she has changed the paper’s focus, replacing heartfelt calls for community with more lucrative lonely hearts ads.
We periodically hear those ads, as men and women call in to express their crude longings for a devoted mate — or a convenient hookup. A technical glitch Friday night obliged Rishard to stop the show for repairs. Even afterward, stage business sometimes distracted from the recorded voices, making them less intelligible.
The best reason to see Theatre Horizon’s production is Rishard’s commanding delineation of Bryan’s emotional journey from desperation to a fragile hope. Holum, as his cynical ex, is also fine, though she has a more constricted emotional arc. Their scenes, under Matthew Decker’s direction, convey both tension and intimacy.
The problem is the character of Matthew, alternately idealistic (about the power of prose, and newspaper prose at that) and completely unhinged. Barth has real verve and presence. But his Matthew, perhaps inevitably, remains too much of a comic caricature. And the laughs, often uneasy, that he generates undermine the show’s poignancy and impact.
“Any sense of connection you have with another person is either a complete illusion or chemicals dancing around in your brain,” Bryan declares at his emotional nadir. “The sooner you accept the fact that you’re completely alone, the sooner you accept that everyone is completely alone, the better off you’ll be.” That’s a legitimate, if bleak, philosophical stance, the heart of the absurdist vision. Hunter’s characters contemplate the abyss but turn away.