Samuel D. Hunter’s Obie Award–winning dramedy is set in the break room of Hobby Lobby, a craft shop in Boise, Idaho. Tough-talking, hard-working manager Pauline (Betsy Zajko) labors to forge her crew of misfits into a professional team. Leroy (Trevor Peterson) is an anarchic, smart-alecky designer of profane and disturbing T-shirts, with messages like “Fuck” or “You Will Eat Your Children,” which he wears to shatter the complacency of the customers. His younger adopted brother, Alex (Erik Odom), is a self-styled performance artist who writes violent protest songs, is subject to anxiety attacks, and frequently threatens to kill himself. Anna (Heather L. Tyler) is a fervid reader, with a taste for books that end in death, suicide, or both. The oddest of all is Will (Matthew Elkins), a bumbling, diffident loner who lives in his car and tries to soft-pedal his dark past: He was a member of an evangelical cult that was shut down following a mysterious death. He’s fanatically obsessed with the rapture—or is it Armageddon?—and eager for it to arrive.
Will has hardly finished filling out his application papers when he suddenly announces, without warning, that he is Alex’s real father. Alex is incredulous and freaked out by the news, and Will finds his attempts to connect with his son tough going, particularly as Leroy hates and distrusts him and forbids the boy to associate with him. As Alex struggles to come to terms with his newfound father, there’s a blazing showdown between Will’s religious fervor and Leroy’s angry mistrust.
Hunter’s play seems initially to be a quirky character comedy, but Act 2 turns much darker as we realize that Will’s eagerness for the rapture is a longing for universal destruction to punish the world for its shabby treatment of him. The lives of the others are corroded with anger and resentment at finding themselves in dead-end jobs and lives. Presumably, the title is intended ironically.
Director John Perrin Flynn has cast the piece cannily and staged it with finesse, but the disparity of mood between the two acts remains jarring. Zajko’s Pauline is a feisty control freak who struggles to keep her domain in order when Will’s arrival threatens to reduce it to chaos. Elkins provides a finely etched portrait of Will as a shy and harmless misfit, only gradually allowing us to perceive the torrent of emotions seething beneath the surface. Odom gives us a tightly wound Alex, riven by his own confusions and conflicts. Peterson’s Leroy is a sort of vest-pocket Mephistopheles, as fanatical in his way as Will. Tyler’s shy, wistful Anna, shortchanged when the self-esteem was handed out, tries to befriend Will only to find herself under lethal attack.
Hunter’s play can be frustrating to watch, because it’s hard to tell where, if anywhere, it’s going. One sometimes fears it’s about to take a headlong leap into a religious tract or a supernatural event. Still, uncertainty and unpredictability are also the source of its fascination. In any case, the exemplary production goes a long way toward making us forgive dramaturgical deficiencies.
Presented Rogue Machine at Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A. Oct. 20–Dec. 9. (855) 585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com.
Critic’s Score: A-