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A Bright New Boise

Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 21, 2023

Angus O'Brien, Eva Kaminsky, Ignacio Diaz-Silverio,
Peter Mark Kendall, and Anna Baryshnikov

Photo by Joan Marcus
Perhaps my favorite play of the last year is Samuel D. Hunter's A Case for the Existence of God, an exquisite drama that plumbs the depths of a friendship between two men in Twin Falls, Idaho. The show was presented by New York's Signature Theatre and was the first production as part of the playwright's Writers-in-Residence with the company. Hunter's A Bright New Boise, which is receiving its Off-Broadway premiere at Signature, is this season's follow-up, and if it is not as overwhelming (to use a favorite adjective by a New Boise character) as the previous play, it is essential viewing for Hunter fans.

A Bright New Boise premiered Off-Off-Broadway in 2010, and it is among Hunter's earliest works. Audiences acquainted with his plays will recognize familiar elements and motifs, such as a profound yearning for human connection, life's precariousness, and dark humor drawn from philosophical absurdism. Idaho is not just a geographical location in the Midwest, it is a state of mind in Hunter's conception, and pain, sadness and laughter are applied in equal measure.

The play's central character is Will (Peter Mark Kendall), who has recently moved to Boise from a small town in northern Idaho. Will was involved in a shocking religious scandal and he is starting a new life as a minimum-wage employee in a Hobby Lobby store. The craft store's highly strung and foul-mouthed manager Pauline (Eva Kaminsky) notices some irregularities in Will's resume, but she hires him anyway after he promises to not attempt to unionize the employees. Within the first few minutes, though, it becomes clear that Will has ulterior motives for applying to this particular Hobby Lobby (and which I will not reveal here). These motives do not involve unionization.

Set mostly in the store's break room (adeptly designed with colorless sterility and functionality by Wilson Chin and lit with cold fluorescents and razor-sharp neon designed by Jen Schriever), we soon meet some of Will's new co-workers. Alex (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio) is a high-school student and prone to panic attacks. He has a terrible home life with his adoptive parents, but he finds solace in music by artists like Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Leroy (Angus O'Brien) is Alex's older brother and deliberately provokes his manager and the customers by wearing shirts with messages like, "You Will Eat Your Children," which is about the only one that can be printed here. (April M. Hickman designed the witty costumes.) As an MFA student in visual arts, Leroy claims he's "the only one in this store who knows anything about art supplies," and "the only one that can answer actual questions." His job is secure.

The fifth character is Anna (Anna Baryshnikov), who, like Will, hides in the store after closing to spend several hours each night in the break room. Anna has an unhappy homelife, and the solitude allows her a space to read. Books with tragic endings are her favorite.

Director Oliver Butler and the excellent cast draw out and subtly reveal the characters' debilitating sense of isolation even as they clumsily struggle to relate with one another. Additionally, the production unsettles through its references to dark forces that seem to pervade the Hobby Lobby sanctum (and the specific chain store with its religion-based intolerance was surely a deliberate choice). The television, for instance, periodically shifts from a pair of anodyne corporate talking heads to graphic medical procedures on ears, eyes, and indecipherable organs. (Stefania Bulbarella provides the projection and video design, and Christopher Darbassie designed the evocative sound.)

One of the intellectual pleasures of experiencing artists' early work–and this isn't intended as an underhanded slight–is appreciating the noticeable growth and development of their craft. In Hunter's recent plays, the existential mysteriousness and character eccentricities are much more organic. Here, some of the plot points feel manipulated, and we detect the playwright at work rather than in the service of the characters. A Bright New Boise may not be his finest work, but visiting Hunter's Idaho always has its fair share of pleasures and revelations to make the trip worthwhile.

A Bright New Boise
Through March 12, 2023
Signature Theatre Company
Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule: