By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
If the title of this new play by Samuel D. Hunter has you singing Judy Garland's famous song from A Star is Born ("I was born in a trunk in the Princess Theatre in Pocatello, Idaho"), sing no more. This is a grim, realistic drama, a big-cast hymn to unhappiness by the playwright whose enormous hit, The Whale, will be on Theatre Exile's stage in February.
Like several other recent American plays, Pocatello is about a dying small city, where economic downturn and the erosion of "family values" has taken a terrible toll. So it is appropriate that the set—an Olive Garden-ish chain restaurant—is decorated with a faux festive sign: "Famiglia Week." That was the week that never was.
It begins with two families, talking simultaneously at their separate tables. Eventually distinct remarks emerge and we begin to learn the relationships. The central character is Eddie (T.R. Knight), the manager, who has lived in Pocatello all his life and can trace his family back to his great grandpa who hand-built a house which is now in ruins and used by druggies for parties. His brother Nick (Brian Hutchison) is in town for a short visit with his wife (Crystal Finn) who tries to navigate the chilly waters of the brothers' irritable mother (Brenda Wehle).
Arguing at the next table are Troy (Danny Wolohan), working as a waiter, having run out of decent jobs in Pocatello as one business after another closed, and his wife Tammy (Jessica Dickey) a semi-reformed drunk. Their teenage daughter Becky (Leah Karpel) is full of disgust with life and venom for all human beings, especially her mother. She has some of the play's best and most pointed lines, while her grandfather ((Jonathan Hogan) provides wise advice when he isn't drifting into dementia. ("Lucidity is overrated.") The rest of the waitstaff is made up of Max (Cameron Scoggins), an unreformed meth head, and Isabelle (Elvy Yost), his meaningless hook-up.
Eddie's desperate mission seems to be to save the restaurant and everybody's jobs, but his deeper mission is to prove that community and kindness is possible. "I used to know who I was here..." That he is gay in a small-minded small town doesn't make his life an easier.
Davis McCallum directs this excellent cast with relentless grimness and ominous clashing sound effects between scenes. It may be the only play I've seen that, despite so much food onstage, didn't make me hungry.
Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd st. Through Jan.4.Tickets: 212-279-4200.