Location is everything, and nowhere is that more true than in the Big Apple, where one’s neighborhood becomes a major part of his or her personality. The search for an apartment is a metaphor for one’s quest for his or her true self in Brooke Berman’s Hunting and Gathering, which just opened at 59E59’s Primary Stages theater. But this journey never quite reaches its destination. Berman, whose publicity crew has repeated her many different living arrangements, must see some of herself in Ruth (Keira Naughton), the first character we meet. As she demonstrates in a cutesy slide show, Ruth has hopped from one sublet or house-sit to another for various short periods of time over the last two decades. Her social life is as unsettled as her geographical one. Ruth finds herself moving yet again, thanks to a broken relationship as the other woman in an affair with a married Columbia English professor.
Jesse (Jeremy Shamos) is now facing divorce as a result of that affair and moving into a place of his own. It seems he has never had to find his own living quarters, or decorate them, and so must lean on his younger half-brother Astor, (Michael Chernus), a squatter, to help him. Astor, meanwhile, holds a candle for Ruth, who merely sees him as a friend, though perhaps one equally as lost as herself. Pretty soon, Jesse has found himself another lady to lean on in the form of Bess (Mamie Gummer), an aggressive student auditing her class who asks him out for drinks (for some reason, Bess lives in a Park Slope share even though she attends school in Harlem), thus rounding out the relationship geometry.
All four characters are looking for something – a place of residence, to be sure, but more importantly, a place where they belong, a place that they can truly call home. Director Leigh Silverman finds a suitable manner in which to block this quest as the characters march on and offstage with an LCD screen behind them labeling their current domicile and type of living situation in Craig’s list-friendly terms, with characters often trailing off and finishing each other’s threads, thereby communicating their shared state of flux. (David Korins, the set designer, is to be credited for not just the screen but the backdrop, in which moving boxes comprise the skyline, with certain boxes opening up to provide furniture and props).
Berman’s play may come from personal experience, but the theatrical experience feels too insular. Who outside of the five boroughs could relate to a play that routinely name-checks areas like East Ninth Street or Orchard Street? This inaccessibility unfortunately extends to her characters as well. Naughton does an incredible job conveying Ruth’s mix of emotions and flawlessly merges the character’s moments of stubbornness and self-doubt – she is the true star of the show – but I wish Berman had provided more background for the character. Yes, she seems like a free spirit, but what are her real interests? She mentions that she has had many different jobs, but what were they, and why did none of them work out? This is especially odd given that Berman does not hesitate to provide an abundance of awkward exposition for her other characters (Bess even recites letters to her parents in monologue format).
While Jesse is the character who connects the foursome in Hunting, his character is less than central. Both Shamos and Chernus are excellent actors (witness Chernus in last season’s Essential Self-Defense and Shamos just this fall as a shamed priest in 100 Saints You Should Know), but are saddled here with two-dimensional material. I would have especially liked to delve more into Jesse’s world, since he is the character who has lost the most when we meet him. Berman’s men are lovelorn and lonely, the “gatherers” – or “prey” – as explained rather explicitly in a late scene by Bess. In fact, she is the lone character who knows how to make things happen rather than sit around waiting in vain, and Gummer uses an ebullient delivery to conceal the disappointments that have shaped her, only to ever-so-slightly reveal them in key moments.
Whether as predator or prey, what defines the four characters in Hunting is not the space in which they live, but with whom they occupy that space, an odd choice that subverts any effect Berman might want her play to have about true fulfillment coming from within. Happiness, it seems, requires more than just a broker’s fee.