The Death of Griffin Hunter
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 17, 2007
Inverse Theater has brought back Kirk Bromley's 1998 verse drama The Death of Griffin Hunter, in substantially revised form, for a new production at the Brick Theater. It's a very entertaining show, if perhaps given to excess: the range of ideas and ambitions of this piece is mind-bogglingly mammoth. It's a tribute to the playwright, director Howard Thoresen, and the generally excellent corps of actors that it all works as well as it does.
On the surface, Hunter is a Ludlam-esque suspense thriller (Robert, not Charles), in which an amoral madman/arms dealer named Semion Rockwell tries to destroy a do-gooder UN official (the title character) before he can implement an international disarmament agreement. Semion is also in love with Hunter's wife, a beautiful and smart French actress named Sophie Berceau. So, too, is Hunter's former closest friend Leveret, who took a fall for Hunter years ago that landed him in a South Asian jail; Leveret is now back in circulation, working for Rockwell. Also in town (the play takes place in San Francisco) is Hunter's former lover, an Asian woman named Mayumi who now runs a bookstore; these two have never quite gotten over each other.
Toss in a bunch of operatives working for Leveret and Rockwell, Hunter's extraordinarily efficient assistant Walker, and a mysterious cop named Madera, and the ingredients are in place for a complicated web of intrigue. The arc of the story is constantly unpredictable and the ending is a grand surprise.
The structure and style of the play form a kind of homage to Shakespeare—it's written in iambic pentameter and filled not only with the sorts of dazzling puns and wordplays that the Bard reveled in, but also with scene after scene mirroring some of the most famous devices in Shakespeare's canon; we keep thinking we know how Hunter is going to play out because of the allusions throughout, even to the presumed tragic finish that the title portends. But Bromley keeps pulling the rug out from under us every time he leads us down the garden path (to mix metaphors rather baldly). The result is a show that on one level feels like a competition with the master and on another feels like a gleeful subversion of same.
Hunter is also loaded with topical references, many of them about the current state of the world and the present administration (though some, slyly, are more personal, such as a joke about "indie" bookstores that refers to the burgeoning theatre movement that Bromley himself christened a year and a half ago).
Director Thoresen keeps the show moving neatly and balances the frequent humor with the more serious aspects of the piece. Jane Stein's ingenious set design, coupled with a very smart decision to reconfigure the playing space in the Brick Theater, enables quick transitions between the numerous scenes, and establishes location with deft economy. Jeff Nash's lighting, Karen Flood's costumes, and John Gideon's sound further abet the evocation of time and place in the show.
The performances are fine, with some particularly outstanding work coming from Jessica Chandlee Smith, an Inverse veteran who has never been better than she is here as Vivian Nash, Rockwell's artsy wife; Al Benditt, re-creating the role of Rockwell that he originated in the first production; Bob Laine, funny and then touching as Boa, one of Rockwell's minions; Eva van Dok, efficiency personified as Hunter's shockingly on-the-ball assistant; and Timothy McCown Reynolds, who makes Leveret as interesting and significant here as the best Iagos make their character in a well-staged Othello.
If you didn't see The Death of Griffin Hunter in its first incarnation—or if, heaven forbid, you're not acquainted with the work of Kirk Bromley at all—then hurry to the Brick, especially if you're curious about the state of language and intellectual discourse in contemporary American drama (those are Bromley's particular specialties). As for me, this revival only made me wistful for the next Bromley piece. It's been nearly a year and a half since the last full-length; I'm eager for something new.