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Hunting and Gathering

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Michael Chernus and Jeremy Shamos
Photo by James Leynse.

The history of human civilization has long seen a certain romantic allure attached to the nomad, suggesting that the settled sometimes believe that not having a fixed home can provide its own sort of stability. That idea has never taken permanent hold in the United States, where the three-bedroom house, car, and 2.5 kids romping around in the yard are seen as the exemplar of the American Dream, the proof that you've "made it." As for New York, where housing can be as transitory as romance and employment? Well, forget it.

In fact, the best thing to come from the city's perpetually frustrating housing situation (especially in the present era of citywide, sky-high rents) might just be Hunting and Gathering, Brooke Berman's new comedy at Primary Stages. Berman's cheerfully clear-eyed look at where and how one lives affects relationships (and vice versa) is a surprisingly potent rallying cry aimed at a generation constantly on the move, if one in need itself of just a little more time to unpack.

Written and directed (by Leigh Silverman) with all the jagged, contemporary energy of a stream-of-consciousness sitcom, it concerns two men and two women in their 20s and 30s struggling to define the concept of "home." But Hunting and Gathering avoids most of the usual tropes associated with the post-college malaise, and is never as pedantic or as predictable as you might surmise. Berman is astonishingly good at rising above the level of Friends-style, Styrofoam-peanut discourse to explore the more profound difficulties of establishing yourself while knee-deep in cardboard and packing tape.

Barely keeping afloat in that sea of uncertainty is Ruth (Keira Naughton), who's lived a few dozen places during her years in the city, and has as much trouble holding onto men as she does living quarters. One of her most unintentionally disastrous hook-ups was with Jesse (Jeremy Shamos), an English Literature professor whose marriage dissolved as a result of the affair, and who must now (for the first time in his life) find a place to live all on his own.

Keira Naughton and Mamie Gummer
Photo by James Leynse.

Ruth got something out of it, though: a friendship with Jesse's chronically couch-surfing half-brother Astor (Michael Chernus), who somehow manages to hold down 10 different jobs without being able to stay in one place for me than two weeks at a time. While the close kinship they've developed is charged to inspire problems for them down the line, Jesse is faced with his own troubles in the person of a pretty young student named Bess (Mamie Gummer), whose interest in him extends well beyond the academic.

"You can be a predator, or you can be prey," Bess says when she and Ruth finally (if unknowingly) meet late in the play (behind the orange plastic controller of a Big Buck Hunter videogame), and this is a fairly accurate summary of how all the characters live. Berman, however, takes a more positive view. She doesn't see New York as a hostile wilderness, but rather a vista of possibilities in which it's theoretically possible to live wherever - and with whomever - you choose. This undercurrent of optimism prevents this potentially bitter subject from leaving an unpleasant aftertaste (a program note suggests the playwright's housing history is even more sordid than Ruth's), even if Berman generally proves more insightful about the psychology and philosophy of people moving than she does moving about the insight of people's psychology and philosophy.

The cast, likewise, doesn't make many emotional connections with the material, but are allowed to display vivid personalities that achieve similar ends by proxy. Naughton's world-weary carriage and Chernus's lead-footed directness anchor them as kindred spirits, while the deceptively happy-go-lucky Shamos and Gummer supply the proper head-in-the-clouds contrast. When they pair off in various combinations for various reasons, each combination convinces as inevitable, as if proof that in New York you can have five soul mates just around the corner.

In terms of finding the ideal apartment or partner, however, Berman has no practical advice. But if the human side of Hunting and Gathering is a quick stroll down a very familiar neighborhood, the show's contemplative look at the ways we all plant and uproot ourselves offers at the very least a more hopeful way to approach both of those crucial searches.

Hunting and Gathering
Through March 1
59E59 Theaters - Theater A, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison.
Running Time: 90 Minutes, no intermission
Tickets online: TicketCentral

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