Saturday, February 02, 2008

Hunting and Gathering

Photo/James Leynse

Brooke Berman's new play, Hunting and Gathering has the personal connection -- the playwright's been in and out of homes since the '90s (she writes about it on her blog) -- the hipster street cred of a YouTube tie-in, and a ticket initiative at the occasionally musty Primary Stages ($20 tickets through 2/2 with code PS35 if you're under 35). It features the teenage wonder of a LED stripe that announces the title of each scene, the young adult release found in playing the arcade game Buck Hunter, and the sad truths of life in New York City, painstakingly accounted for from couch surfing to housesitting, from brokers fees to subletting, from Craig's List to the Classifieds, and it does so pretty wittily. It's even got some dynamic personalities, from the transient "gatherer" Ruth (Kiera Naughton) to the young, in-the-moment "hunter" Bess (Mamie Gummer), both of whom are or have been involved with the man-child Jesse (Jeremy Shamos), a literary professor who doesn't know how to live on his own. And there's a breakout performance from Michael Chernus as Jesse's brother, Astor, a free-loving self-proclaimed Buddhist who's looking forward to his new career as "Man With a Van." (Who wants the "corporate sponsorship of a salary"?) So why does Hunting and Gathering seem so shallow?

The answer lies in all these brand-name woes: from Ikea to Park Slope ("a place where everyone pretends its Woodstock") to MapQuest, it's all just glittery surface. I mean, we're introduced to Ruth not as a character, but as a slide-show presentation of the former apartments where she's lived (this play got its start as a ten-minute one-act for MCC in which Berman did just that), and although she speaks of how she's been affected by the various places where she lives -- settling into the culture of each resident's book collections, their taste in movies, &c. -- there isn't an ounce of that in the way she stubbornly interacts with her best friend, Astor (who has such a big thing for her that he's willing to sleep on an air mattress for her -- an air mattress!). A lot of this play follows that same disconnect between what's said -- or rather, referenced -- and what's experienced.

This works rather well for the slick director, Leigh Silverman, and the nifty set designer, David Korins, as they're able to conjure up just about any prop they need from a giant wall of cardboard boxes. The script's about as deep as a hundred square foot studio, but Silverman makes it work, realizing, more than the characters in the play, the concept of Woolf's "A Room of One's Own." Since there are no walls, just wide open space, she allows the actors to make their own walls and limitations, which heightens the truth of Berman's play: home is what you make it.

By definition then, the play's also what the actors make it, and here, they're on good terms. Even though Bess has little purpose in the play beyond being Ruth's opposite, and Jesse's girlfriend, Mamie Gummer plays her with real gumption -- when Jesse points out that she's his student, she reminds him, "I'm only auditing," and then, with a twinkle in her eye, "Want to make out?" Ultimately, it's not much of a surprise that the best moments are those that stand back from Berman's glib writing and hyper modernity -- in a scene called "The Middle of the Night," the focus shifts from Ruth's side of the stage, weird noises and dead, headless birds on the roof, to Jesse's side, where he gobbles down Swedish Fish, trying to get over his loneliness. Both move for the phone, both put it down, and it's only now, with the house cleared of all that distracting clutter, that we actually see them as people. Only Michael Chernus manages to channel that same feeling into his lines, decorating each one with a Christmas-lighting of subtext.

Perhaps the shallowness of the play is necessary to express the sorts of characters that Berman is dealing with. And maybe I'm naive in thinking that Ruth and Jesse are a little too old to be so passive and adrift (the 30s are the new 20s). But I wish there were less packing peanuts in this big-box play, because underneath all the Styrofoam wit, these lonely characters are aching to make a connection.

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