Hunting and Gathering
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
January 31, 2008
Playwright Brooke Berman charmingly chronicles the trials and tribulations of transient New York thirtysomethings in her new comedy, Hunting and Gathering. Her protagonists spend life on the run, hopping from one sublet to the next, holding down multiple jobs to make ends meet, and trying to make meaningful connections in between. One character claims to make "transience an art project." That's the playful, unpredictable, and somewhat melancholy essence of Berman's play, which may wind up being as epochal about present-day New York as Woody Allen's Manhattan—a film referenced often here—was about the New York of the 1970s.
Hunting and Gathering's endearing quartet of Gothamites includes Ruth, an urban wanderer in search of a room of her own "under $1,000, in Manhattan." Her best friend, Astor, is a free-spirited Buddhist seeking out life experience anywhere he can find it. Astor's brother, Jesse, is a newly divorced college professor awkwardly adjusting to single life. One of his students, Bess, who is all about the here-and-now, has her eye on Jesse ("I think I might be able to turn his life around," she tells her mother at one point). Through these four the author investigates a plethora of indigenously New York phenomena like inter-borough snobbery (Astor says of Queens: "...as if Greek bakeries make it real") and the Park Slope Food Co-Op (Bess tells her Mom it "sounds like a good idea, but it isn't").
Then there are the intertwining relationships of the characters. Back when Jesse was married he had an extended affair with Ruth, a liaison that left a lasting impression on both of them. Astor, meanwhile, has secretly carried a torch for Ruth for years, and may finally make his move. Later on, a chance meeting in a bar with Bess—which includes female bonding over a game of Big Buck Hunter—leaves Ruth empowered and ready to make big life changes.
There's a lot of humor here, especially for those well-versed in the pragmatic compromises of living in New York. Astor's admission that his life is all about "the art of subletting and living for free" strikes a riotously familiar chord for anyone who's ever surfed Craigslist for an apartment. A similarly recognizable sentiment is expressed by Ruth, who tells us that the first rule of house-sitting is to read all the tenant's books and copy their CDs. Then there's that trunk she owns: "I got that trunk by making out with some guy who had the same birthday as me." Only in New York, people.
As funny and sharp as Hunting and Gathering is, a sad, lonely heart beats at its core. "I wish I could Mapquest my life," one character laments about their confusingly aimless existence. Such sentiments abound in a play that is quietly messy and poetic, much like life. As another of the characters later points out, "You want to keep your history light in case you have to carry it on your back." Surfing from one crash pad to another (Ruth presents a slide show of the literally dozens of places she's lived) has taken more of an emotional toll on these folks—and their personal lives—than they initially realize.
Primary Stages's terrific production is directed with fluid grace and efficiency by Leigh Silverman, who eloquently sets the action against a backdrop of cardboard moving boxes (courtesy of set designer David Korins). Even though Hunting and Gathering only runs about 90 intermissionless minutes, one feels as if they're getting a more substantial evening than that, both in terms of story and meaning, and that's due in large part to Silverman's strong work.
The show's four-person ensemble is equally strong, beginning with Michael Chernus, who leads the cast with a delightful performance as Astor. He emerges as an unlikely romantic comedy leading man here (something one wouldn't suspect from his previous work in the plays of Adam Rapp) and it's a role that suits him well. I have never seen him better. Keira Naughton matches Chernus note for note as Ruth, imbuing the role with a textured mix of vulnerability and screwball charm. As Jesse, Jeremy Shamos gives a layered and nuanced performance that addresses his character's unspoken neuroses without being obvious about them. Mamie Gummer brings up the rear as Bess, providing an outgoing brashness that takes one by surprise but doesn't steamroll. Gummer's confidence as Bess is likable in its naiveté.
All in all, Hunting and Gathering is another strong showing from the folks at Primary Stages. Kudos to them for mounting a play that taps so lucidly into part of New York's current zeitgeist. And kudos, as well, to Berman for having the moxie and know-how to write such a wise, sweet, and sincere work.