"The Few"

Eva Kaminsky and Michael Laurence star in Samuel D. Hunter's "The Few" at the Old Globe. (Jim Cox / September 27, 2013)

SAN DIEGO — Characters in drama don't have to be likable, as Shakespeare, Ibsen and Eugene O'Neill keep reminding us. But we ought to care about their fates. They should arouse our concern even if we might politely turn down a dinner invitation from them.

The three characters in Samuel D. Hunter's "The Few," which is having its world premiere at the Old Globe's Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre under Davis McCallum's sensitive direction, aren't going to win any popularity contests. But from the moment they made their appearance onstage, I found myself involved in their confounding, sorrowful lives — lives still full of yearning despite the bitterness.

Their resentments, born of disappointment, are like clues in a mystery novel. When they lash out — a frequent occurrence — fragments of the past are illuminated in lightning flashes, helping us to put together this puzzle of unresolved relationships.

Hunter, an important new voice in the American theater, writes about what happens when characters don't get what they want. In plays such as "The Whale" and "A Bright New Boise," he explores the ways in which people compensate themselves after life has shortchanged them, gorging on food or religion in towns in the American West that aren't especially welcoming to those constitutionally incapable of conforming.

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Like much of Hunter's previous work, "The Few" is set in Idaho. Here, it's a more or less anonymous highway town in the northern part of the state, a place to pass through rather than settle down in, at least for anyone with the slightest ambition.

The year is 1999. Two things give this away: The characters are worried about Y2K, the Millennium bug that threatened to wreak havoc on the world's computer systems, and the play is set in the office of a giveaway newspaper called the Few that has salvaged its business through personal ads aimed at the trucker community. (Craigslist and smartphones haven't yet killed classifieds.)

Dane Laffrey's set presents us with a shoestring operation overloaded with clutter. Matt Frey's lighting lends this disorganization a shadowy presence — the pileup is at once in the way and partly invisible, like memories too difficult to sort through.

Bryan (Michael Laurence), the owner of this rag, has returned after an unexplained four-year absence. Since he's been gone, QZ (Eva Kaminsky), his former girlfriend, has righted the ship financially by ditching most of the editorial content and focusing on what their readers are really interested in: romantic connections.

Angry that Bryan can't explain why he left or suddenly came back, QZ doesn't want him interfering with the paper. She's the boss now, a point she indignantly hammers home to him. Bryan accepts her fury with the guilty passivity of a Sam Shepard drifter. It says a lot about Laurence and Kaminsky as actors that they draw our sympathies to their characters without blunting their pointy edges.

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There's a third employee and he is a real corker — Matthew (Gideon Glick), the gay 19-year-old nephew of the man with whom Bryan started the Few. (It was this partner's death that started Bryan's long and aimless wandering.)

Matthew, an outcast himself and a budding writer, believes in the original mission of the paper, which was to relieve the loneliness of those who spend their life on the road. He wants Bryan to re-inject this idealism back into the Few, but he's up against Bryan's disillusionment and QZ's uninspired pragmatism.

The characters in "The Few," it must be said, are more convincingly drawn than their plot, which has a few too many secrets and twists. These carefully calculated revelations are less resonant than the manner in which the characters interact.

Hunter has a gift for communicating psychology through speech patterns. Indeed the inflections, hesitations and evasions of his characters often tell us more than the content of their dialogue.

Glick's twitchy Matthew brilliantly brings this to life. Still searching for his home in the world, he can't start a line without erasing it. Even when violently angry, he adopts an interrogatory tone, flashing with vehemence yet punctuating with an apologetic question mark.

The office answering machine allows Hunter to widen the play's repertoire of voices. Messages are played back from callers placing personal ads. This ingeniously establishes the play's backdrop of alienation and loneliness, which are Hunter's recurring themes.

The characters in "The Few" are casting about for a better story for themselves, but their problem isn't just cultural and existential — it's also dramaturgical. The playwright is still working out his method of advancing his drama while avoiding phony solutions. He's too scrupulously honest for happy endings, but he over-complicates his story. A more probing examination of Bryan's despair might have provided a more satisfying through line.

Still, "The Few" is a play that makes me grateful to be tracking the American drama at this period of history. Hunter has that quality that separates true playwrights from the pretenders: His characters lend the impression of living beyond their plays while being firmly rooted within them. McCallum's finely acted production intensified my appreciation of this welcome talent.

'The Few'

Where: The Old Globe, Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: 7 p.m. Tue.-Wed., 8 p.m. Thu,-Fri., 2 and 8 p.m. Sat., 2 and 7 p.m. Sun. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Oct. 27.

Tickets: Start at $29

Contact: (619) 234-5623, http://www.theoldglobe.org

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com