Stage Review: Hunter Gatherers

A very uncivilized dinner party.

When the quaint customs of civilization begin to break down, what will become of Seattleites? Are we truly prepared to go to ground when our most daring flirtations with danger are limited to crossing a busy street in the rain while invisible to drivers in our stylish black D&G?In Washington Ensemble Theatre's regional premiere of Hunter Gatherers, playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb turns clever drawing-room comedy on its ear with one simple question: How many accidents separate us from complete anarchy?Nachtrieb's test case revolves around two couples who've been reconvening every year since high school for an exotic home-cooked meal. This time, übermensch Richard (Patrick Allcorn), concluding that fresh is best, has brought home a box containing "Carl," a live lamb who must be slaughtered before dinner can be served. His wife, understandably, is a bit sheepish. But it's all domestic bliss—at least at the outset. Richard refers to Pam (Montana von Fliss) with a jolly salute as his "Skipper," and she responds affectionately by calling him "my boat."Nachtrieb's 2006 play takes its comic cues from Friends, clearly draws on the moral outrage of innumerable Albee escapades, and so transparently derives its sense of the absurd from Christopher Durang that royalty checks should be arriving at his brownstone just about now.Yet all these elements come together in a surprisingly organic way once the guests arrive. First on the scene is glamazon Wendy (Hannah Victoria Franklin), married to a doctor she's emasculated through years of diligent emotional abuse. And as if Wendy's acerbic barbs weren't enough, Dr. Tom (Ricky Coates) is also Richard's favorite prey for a good wrestling match—which inevitably concludes with the boastful and boorish Richard on top, ready to "claim his prize."So it goes, until the veneer of camaraderie cracks open and a toxic sludge of deception, resentment, and infidelity seeps in. What was intended as another evening of well-heeled repressives making nice-nice devolves into a rampage of Darwinian impulses. Dinner is served with a body count.San Francisco playwright Nachtrieb has a gift for funny turns of phrase that undercut the seething tensions and the seriousness of what he implies: We're all animals. And all the accoutrements, fine wines, and double entendres don't mean much next to skills in fighting and rutting.Director Desdemona Chiang assembles a cast that attacks this dark comedy with the ferocity of hungry kids at a pie-eating contest. Allcorn appears to have internalized entire chapters of Robert Bly's Iron John, since nearly everything Richard does emanates from a burning passion to dominate the world around him and scatter his DNA as if from a confetti cannon. Von Fliss' Pam is the one character who actually evinces an arc of growth. Tentatively at first, she peeks out from under her husband's towering presence, until the confidence she gains allows her to face an unknowable future.Likewise,Franklin's Wendy is a study in the duality of modern feminism. Must strong women surrender a nurturing part of themselves in order not to be eaten alive in a male-dominated environment? Can those opposites be reconciled? Well, not for Wendy, who's undone by her own rapacious urges. Tom is easily Nachtrieb's least sympathetic character, and the most contemporary of all who hunt and gather here. He's the archetypical metrosexual—the kind of guy handy with a quip who couldn't change a tire if his life depended on it. Coates' Tom is a fellow bullied into the margins ofhis own life by his wife, his friends, Dr. Phil, and God knows how many other sensitive males of the media.Chiang stirs this little mess of a dinner party into a savory three-alarm chili. But despite all the fun, there's one element I found distracting: In casting the physical types at the extreme (both Allcorn and Franklin tower over their onstage spouses), she telegraphs much of what Nachtrieb tries to unveil through wordplay and foreshadowing. Call it a minor quibble; it's nothing that will prevent you from laughing your ass off—and gazing warily across the table at your next dinner party.

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