Eve of Destruction

Samuel D. Hunter’s fine play The Whale made a big splash last season at Playwrights Horizons (the young playwright received a special Drama Desk Award). Now he has returned with The Few, an absorbing drama at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater about working-class people flailing in their efforts to survive. Like The Whale, it benefits from canny direction by Davis McCallum.

The talented Hunter has carved out northern Idaho as his stomping ground, just as Lucy Thurber has claimed western Massachusetts. His play A Bright New Boise first brought the Idaho-born dramatist acclaim in 2010. He writes with immense sympathy for people who are isolated and at the end of their rope. You could easily guess that from a glimpse of the living conditions in Dane Laffrey’s set for The Few: the interior of a trailer home that’s cluttered with shabby furniture, shelves with papers, and various ancient computer equipment (it’s 1999, and Y2K has everyone jittery), all sitting under a water-blotched ceiling.

The Few opens with a standoff. Bryan (Michael Laurence) and QZ (Tasha Lawrence) stare at each other, tension thick in the air. Four years earlier, shortly after the death of their good friend Jim in a big-rig accident, Bryan disappeared without a word and hasn’t been in touch. In the interim, his ex-lover QZ has taken over the small paper that the three founded for long-haul truckers — it’s called The Few — and transformed it. Once it featured thoughtful articles by Bryan that struck a chord with big-rig drivers, but that business model, she says, was doomed. Now it relies on classified ads from lonely truckers looking for partners — they call in periodically with their ads, such as “All-American in search of American honey. Like long walks and the second Harry Potter book… All shapes and size welcome, please be under 60.”

QZ seems implacable in her fury: she taunts Bryan with the information that she’s met someone way better than he, though their correspondence is by letter. Harsh and unsentimental, she adds that their dog ran onto the Interstate and was squashed dead. But Bryan still holds the deed to the property. Grudgingly, she allows him to pull out a cot and stay.

Bryan’s settling in is not a complete triumph, and Laurence is excellent in conveying his weariness and brusqueness; the part calls for him to be a cipher for a long stretch, but he makes Bryan compelling. The character must contend with Matthew, QZ’s 19-year-old assistant and Jim’s nephew, who has been thrown out of his home. Since then, QZ has looked after him. As the castoff teen, Gideon Glick gives a startling and assured performance: gawky, nerdy, twitchy, often comical, yet full of unexpected nerve. For years he has secretly awaited Bryan’s return, because Bryan’s articles inspired him when he was 15 and he wants to restore The Few to what it was. Unluckily, an element of Hunter’s plot hinges on Matthew’s being the confidant of brawny truckers and their deep desires, which is not credible.

Nonetheless, McCallum and his cast conjure the feel of people on their last legs, and the wreckage of 20th-century idealism on the brink of a new millennium. (Passing references to Tetris and floppy disks underline the need for an attitude adjustment toward the future.) Hunter suggests that QZ’s blanket defense of the profit motive is unacceptable, yet an unfocused idealism is no answer either. The final moments of his play bring hope that the profit motive rampant in the new millennium will not totally smother selflessness, and that Bryan and people like him will find some way to lend help to those who need it.

The Few plays at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place) through June 21. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Monday and Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. There is also a matinee on Saturdays at 3 p.m. For tickets, visit www.rattlestick.org or call Ovationtix at 866-811-4111.

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