Fort Worth — Is that a shrine at the center of Bob Lavallee’s stage set for Hunting and Gathering at Amphibian Stage Productions? It may look like a storage unit filled with typical “stuff”—umbrella, lamp, chair, mermaid(?)—but it’s definitely a shrine, to the simple idea of H-O-M-E.
Brooke Berman’s gently edgy 2008 comedy, having its regional premiere at Amphibian in collaboration with Theatre TCU—and effectively directed by Texas Christian University’s theater department chair, Harry Parker—looks at the life and times of four wandering young New Yorkers (hence the “hunters and gatherers” reference) each looking for home in their own way. No Ozzie and Harriet settling down for this crew, at least not for a while. And because Berman’s play zooms in on experiences many Americans (or their kids and grandkids) are having today, we laugh, but there’s a bit of “hoo boy” emotion there, too. This is funny stuff, but maybe not when it’s happening to you or yours.
A home is what 30-something Ruth (Lydia Mackay) wants more than just about anything, and she’s spent years trying to find it. In the play’s opening scene, Ruth rattles off a list of all the places she’s called home in too-expensive New York—sharing, house-sitting, couch-surfing—for a few weeks or months. It’s hilarious but sad that she knows each address by heart. From time to time Ruth visits the storage unit, sits in her one armchair, and asks a question: How come all her many jobs won’t let her “live like a person?”
Ruth tries to explain to her best friend Astor (Garret Storms) how tired she is of it all. “You may not know this yet,” she tells him, “but after 30, air mattresses are not charming.” Astor is a bouncy Buddhist with a million plans, whose rootless life seems to give him energy, if anything; unlike Ruth, he doesn’t seem worn down at all. Astor is the upbeat to Ruth’s down, the glass-half-full guy when she needs that the most.
Rounding out the cast of characters is Astor’s half-brother Jesse (Sam Swanson), a sad-faced Columbia University lit professor whose marriage broke up over a brief affair with Ruth; and Bess (Kelsey Summers), one of Jesse’s students, a shiny-hard young thing, definitely on the hunt for love—but only from guys with income and real estate.
The characters’ lives intersect as they bounce around scenic designer Lavallee’s bi-level stage, where four cushioned boxes roll about to become beds, couches and futons in different “digs” around the city. Chairs set at the back of the stage are used by characters who aren’t in a scene—but who participate by actively watching the action. It’s a nice touch by director Parker that pays off with the audience: as we keep track of the action onstage and the faces/body language of the “watching” characters, our emotional investment in the lives of these characters deepens. Lighting designer Fred Uebele has some evocative moments, too, especially in a scene where lights move across the stage like waves of shadow, tracing the restless paths and emotions of the characters themselves.
To some extent we’ve been over this “young folks in the big city” territory before in TV shows and movies, but Berman has a good ear for how people talk and a killer way with a punch line. “I wish I could Mapquest my life,” moans one lost character at a fraught moment.
As Jesse, the newly single, apartment-hunting professor, Swanson shows us a guy who doesn’t have a clue what or who he wants. He can’t even buy furniture without his wife; he’s still in awe of her ability to make things happen. We don’t much like Jesse at first, but he’s a decent brother to Astor, and we feel for him when he falls into the clutches of a new romance.
You could bounce quarters off Summers’ character Bess, a scarily self-assured 20-year-old. But though we may not warm to her much, she’s the only one of this foursome with life plans that actually seem to be working. As the other characters flail around, Bess takes aim at her next goal: to get out of the impossible “house share” she’s in off campus, and find a guy with his own place. As written, she's a bit of a one-note character at first, but the script and Summers—a TCU student in her debut at Amphibian—seem to find more in Bess as the play bounces along.
Mackay and Storms team wonderfully well as buddies Ruth and Astor. He’s enthusiastic and essentially hopeful; Ruth’s emotions seem more variable—she hopes for good things, but isn’t surprised when it all turns to dust. Yet both are romantics at heart, and there’s a hint that Astor would like their relationship to be something more. Given Ruth’s history with his brother, Astor knows it might be chancy, but still “a cool risk” to take. Mackay (last seen at Amphibian in their fine 2013 production Fiction) does darkly comical work as Ruth, keeping her jokes and her sadness in delicate balance—an essential for this character, who needs to have a good laugh at her life just to keep going.
Storms is entirely engaging as Astor. He strikes us at first as a charming flake, but his loyalty, good humor—and even some actual money-making smarts—begin to reveal a dude of surprising substance. (And how did Storms manage to co-direct Stage West’s Orlando while rehearsing for this role? Inquiring minds want to know.) He lifts Ruth’s spirits—and ours, too.
“I’ve made transience into an art project,” Ruth says—and it could be playwright Berman’s own voice speaking. With Hunting and Gathering, she gives us an amusing, telling look at the plight of an American generation—finding the funny in a rootless “new normal” that nobody saw coming.
» Read our interview with playwright Brooke Berman here