Some of us try to jury-rig meaningful lives using the disheartening fragments at our disposal; others dream of wiping the slate clean and starting anew. Both approaches prove painfully unsatisfying to the lonely characters in Samuel D. Hunter’s play “A Bright New Boise,” the 2011 Obie Award winner being revived at Chance Theater.
The work — which starts out as a comedy and slides steadily into the dark — takes place in the employee break room of a Hobby Lobby store in Boise, Idaho. As one employee observes, “Customers are paying money to do the manufacturing process themselves.” There’s a creepy prop, a box of baby doll heads, on one of the tables of Bruce Goodrich’s disconcertingly spacious in-the-round set.
As the story begins, tightly wound manager Pauline (Karen Jean Olds) is interviewing applicant Will (Casey Long) for a part-time position.
Pauline perceives herself as a tragic heroine in spite of her drearily workaday context. “It was chaos,” she recalls, in the dramatic timbre of a war flashback, of the conditions in the store when she took over. Her fierce commitment to “this ecosystem that I have painstakingly crafted” keeps her in a state of hilariously profane agitation.
Will, in contrast, is quiet, mysterious, a little fragile. We suspect that he has a secret, and that we will learn it whether we want to or not.
Sure enough, Will has brought a complicated back story, which requires time and several other employees to unpack. He has come to this particular Hobby Lobby to befriend a teenage summer employee, Alex (Andrew Guerrero), to whom he claims a connection. Alex is reluctantly interested, but his protective older brother, Leroy (David Christian Vera), discovers that Will is also fleeing a dark past: The “church” he vaguely mentioned in his interview was a rapture cult that disbanded following a scandal.
The play divulges the details of this scandal reluctantly, apparently hoping that in the meantime, one of its subplots will catch fire: the pursuit of Alex by Will, and the pursuit of Will by Anna, a fellow employee with a crush. But both feel forced. The writer overloads his characters with quirks; you can feel Hunter struggling to balance too much exposition on the rickety scaffold of their dialogue.
At the same time, you can sense a young writer developing his powers. Hunter has a gift for revealing the delusions that sustain people, and although his eye may be critical, it is also deeply affectionate. Director Trevor Biship and his cast struggle to sell some of the plot’s clumsier developments, but they do a lovely job conveying the characters’ complex and recognizable humanity.
“A Bright New Boise,” Chance Theater at the Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 25. $20-$35. www.ChanceTheater.com or (714) 777-3033. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.