Writer Samuel D. Hunter has taken us through Idaho’s Hobby Lobbys (A Bright New Boise), trucker-newsletter headquarters (The Few), and nursing homes (Rest), not to mention the living environs of a 600-pound recluse (The Whale) in said state, but Pocatello (playing at NYC’s Playwrights Horizons through Jan. 4)—the latest in Hunter’s observant and increasingly prolific ‘write what you know’ Northwest adventure series—has a milieu that just about anyone can relate to: the dreaded chain restaurant.
Eddie (movingly played by Grey’s Anatomy star T.R. Knight) is a meek, gay general manager of an unnamed Italian restaurant brand (whose green aprons definitely lean toward The Olive Garden), furiously trying to drum up business after nearby eateries have thrown in the towel. We’re in the midst of Famiglia Week—a promotion in which the staff’s families dine out—which turns out to be more like Hell Week as tensions escalate in the tacky, plastic grape-strewn establishment (the startlingly accurate scenic design by Lauren Helpern practically makes you want to order breadsticks). Troy (Danny Wolohan), an eight-years-in-the-trenches server, is dealing with his senility-afflicted father (Jonathan Hogan) and is on the outs with alcoholic wife Tammy (Jessica Dickey). Their daughter Becky (Leah Karpel) is a downbeat teen activist whom Eddie allows to work part-time as a busser assisting waitstaff, who also include a former meth-head (Cameron Scoggins) and a flighty, young retail vet (Elvy Yost) who seemingly makes up her own rules. Plus, Eddie’s estranged family is fully in tow for the first time in years: an older brother (Brian Hutchison) who despises his smalltown roots, and their skittish, remote mother (Brenda Wehle), whom Eddie desperately wants to be close to again after family tragedy drove them apart years back.
Hunter, as warmhearted a dramatist as can be experienced these days, crafts Pocatello as if it were a Robert Altman film; in fact, the opening scenes contain overlapping dialogue straight out of Nashville. This may not be his most ambitious work to date and, frankly, there are some hiccups?the female characters are a tad grating to start and the contained narrative is a bit too contrived—but the playwright continues to be unerringly exact at gently discovering his characters’ delicate foibles, where a decadent sip of a glass of wine or an unexpected heart-to-heart tells you everything you need to know.
And carrying on Hunter’s tradition of rich leading roles, T.R. Knight is terrific in his best stage outing since his hilarious, fame-cementing turn in 2001’s Noises Off. Tucked into the surroundings like a Chihuahua amidst barking attack dogs, the actor effortlessly commands our sympathy with an almost Chaplin-like simplicity. (His physical bit with a faulty restaurant speaker is a gem.) He and his truly fine costars ensure that Pocatello is a satisfying full-course meal, gluten and all. B+