Nostalgia for the rigors of big-city apartment hopping is the last thing one expects to find out in the suburbs of Howard County. But Rep Stage offers up that and more with its D.C.-area premiere of Brooke Berman’s Hunting and Gathering at Howard Community College.
In Ms. Berman’s 2008 vision, there is an equivalency between vacant real estate and emotional neediness, at least among a certain windowsill-garden variety of modern renter. For footloose souls open to “couch surfing,” or “house sitting,” or setting up camp on a futon for a month or three, romance of a sort often comes with the territory.
Hunting and Gathering is a comedy — at least in form and style. Some in the HCC audience on opening night found lots to laugh over. But don’t go here looking for a Friends-like chuckle-fest.
The dialogue is more typically glib than merry, as one would expect when the current of melancholy and discontent runs this wide and near the surface. Any way you slice it, these four “gatherers” do not meet on the happiest of hunting grounds.
For 20-year-old Bess (Alina Collins Maldonado), the concept of first and last month rent upfront is a lot to suck on and a security deposit is a jawbreaker. So she’s always scouting for a new roommate, especially if he’s a semi-attractive professor in the emotional throes of marital collapse.
Jesse (Rex Daugherty) is that vulnerable lit prof who somehow hasn’t absorbed the elemental lessons of Jane Austen where desperate single women are involved. He already lost a wife when he thoughtlessly started an extramarital affair. Now here comes Bess suggesting that they meet for a whiskey. The next thing he knows, Bess is ordering a sofa for his new place from IKEA.
Jesse’s younger brother Astor (Daniel Corey) is another aimless male in search of a target. All evidence suggests that he is running on the fumes of his final tank of amiability, as even he admits, “You can’t stay with any one person long enough for them to get sick of you.”
Finally there is the loose cannon on deck, Ruth (Kathryn Tkel), the thirtysomething “free spirit” who broke up Jesse’s marriage. She is running out of rental options, but in one of the play’s best scenes, Bess takes her under wing and instructs her on the rules of the game in a predatory world.
Oh, oh. Bess just noticed Jesse’s brother Astor. Note to Astor: Be afraid, be terribly afraid.
Lest this all begins to suggest a second-act dust-up of reversals, juicy confrontations and self-revelations, don’t forget the first rule of post-modern playwriting: There are no second acts. Submerged themes, deluded motivations, and implied actions are deemed enough in themselves for today’s sophisticated playgoer.
The good news is that the shaping of the evening is in the talented hands of Director Kasi Campbell. She stages the play’s talky roundabouts more like a long piece of music, eschewing the familiar rhythms of sitcom banter for larger movements broken up by jazzier, semi-lyrical interludes.
The four Equity actors are all perfectly likable in what they do and the choices they make. I would have preferred a quirk or two, however, that made them into something more than archetypes from the Craigslist generation.
Adding greatly to the evening’s sense of random free-associating is Set Designer Mollie Singer, who sets the characters inside towering stacks of moving boxes. These effectively change like mood rings under the patterned illuminations of Lighting Designer Jay Herzog.
The talented theatrical crew and acting ensemble at Rep Stage are ending their season with another outstanding job of gathering. As to the play’s value and substance — this time those are being left for the hunters in the audience to discover.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Hunting and Gathering by Rep Stage plays through April 24, 2016 in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College — 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.