Interestingly, this play is billed as a “romantic comedy” by the publishing company for it, Samuel French. To my mind, that sobriquet is too lighthearted for a play that eviscerates love, loss, memory, aging and secrets, albeit in a show where the characters do care deeply for one another (and show it in some odd ways).
But that’s one of the beauties of this show—humans can be complex and hold diametrically-opposed feelings and thoughts at the same time and make mistakes and try to make them right, and it’s heartbreaking and lovely and hard.
The show starts out with several moments of silence between Bryan (Baakari Wilder) and QZ (Dawn Thomas Reidy), and is one of the most tense openings I have ever seen. No one is speaking, they are several feet apart, there are no weapons handy, but the tension is so thick, you think about being ready to duck.
Turns out this tension is well-earned; Bryan has been MIA for four years, and QZ has been running the business she, Bryan and their deceased partner and friend, Jim, had started. He appears out of the blue, and there are so many emotions caroming off the two of them, it’s nearly palpable.
The three friends had started a newspaper/gathering spot catering to truck drivers (Bryan and Jim had been long-haul truckers) so that the truckers would have something to hold onto—to know they still existed in the world. But then Jim died, Bryan disappeared a week later, and now it’s four years later. What does Bryan want? How can QZ begin to understand, let alone, forgive, him? Why won’t Bryan even speak of where he’s been? Now that the stasis has been shattered, is there anything left to pick up?
Understandably, QZ is furious that Bryan dares to just walk back in and afraid he will try to change everything, negating her last four years. And he could do it—as he rather unwisely points out in the first five minutes, he still owns the deed to the place.
Adding to the complexity is Jim’s nephew, Matthew (Andrew Flurer). He’s achingly young—just 19—naïve, somewhat unformed and frightened of the world. He has reason to be frightened—he can’t go home because his father might kill him for not being a cis, straight white male. Matthew joined the paper (he’s good with technology, even in 1999, when this is set). Together he and QZ slowly changed the tone of the paper from meditations on the nature of long-haul trucking and existential loneliness to an advertising vehicle for truckers searching for companionship.
Without Bryan to write his complex essays, they needed a way to survive, and pay the bills. But why didn’t QZ just walk away; after all, she has no ownership or financial responsibility. So what held her there? Why did she find another way to pay the debt and continue publishing and living in a crummy trailer and driving beater cars?
But this isn’t about ownership or stagnation; it’s about finding home, finding a way to live in the world, finding a way to soar, and maybe, finding love. It’s about possibilities, and sometimes it’s a long hard road to be ready to grab those possibilities.
The show has some genuinely funny moments—the comedy is very dark. And the BB gun shooting (okay, three shootings) is actually pretty hysterical, even as one is horrified. But that’s one of the beauties of this show—humans can be complex and hold diametrically-opposed feelings and thoughts at the same time and make mistakes and try to make them right, and it’s heartbreaking and lovely and hard.
One of the other beauties of this show is the cast—this is a dream cast in these parts. As Bryan, Wilder turns in a gut-wrenching performance of a man so unsure of his welcome, damaged, yet still moving forward. He looks far old than he is supposed to be; even with the droop of his shoulders you can see how life has burdened him down and how he wasted four years and now has more to atone for. His burdens he placed on himself. It’s a bravura performance.
Dawn Thomas Reidy manages to be scary, vulnerable, monumentally angry, and wry at the same time. You do not want to cross this woman—even though her heart is so big that she lets go of her anger long enough to try to make sure that Matthew is taken care of. She is capable of making hard choices and they feel authentic; she’s not going to fall for the easy, expected way; no, she’s going to learn to breathe again first.
As Matthew, Andrew Flurer imbues his character with a fey quality that almost, but not quite, masks the laser-focused intensity of his fear-driven need for Bryan to be what Matthew wants him to be. Fear is at the heart of his character, but so is courage, as unfocused as it is. QZ may have given this sad boy the safety to do something useful and start on the road to adulthood, but it’s through Bryan that he’ll let go of some illusions and lift his eyes a bit higher.
The play is written by Samuel Hunter, who was a recipient of a 2014 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant, and who also wrote ‘A Bright New Boise,’ ‘The Whale,’ and others. The writing is spare and there are silences used most effectively; this is a writer that can write between the lines.”
“The Few” is directed by Unexpected Stage Company’s co-producing artistic director, Christopher Goodrich. The staging works very well in the space (the audience seats are on two sides of the stage, which is basically a delineated spot in the middle of the room), and the lighting design (Andrew Dodge) is excellent in that the audience is never blinded and the sense of time passing frames the show beautifully.
This is a wonderful show—smart writing, a cast that just sinks into it, tight directing. And it’s always a joy to see another Samuel Hunter play—he writes about humans and their complexity, and uses seemingly everyday lives to show us how un-everday most lives actually are.
Advisory: Language, drunkenness, getting shot with a BB gun.
Running Time: 95 minutes with no intermission.
“The Few,” by Unexpected Stage Company, runs through August 4, 2019 at River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation Building, Fireside Room, Bethesda, MD. For more information, please click here.