Broadway review

In ‘A Bright New Boise,’ beware the religious fanatic in the break room

The Daily Beast

February 21, 2023

Samuel D. Hunter’s play, “A Bright New Boise,” sees a religious fundamentalist trying to escape the reverberations of a scandal while bonding with the son he gave up for adoption.

The break room in a workplace is a place of partial, momentary escape from the grind. The relaxation, eating, bitching, gossiping time is all-too-brief, your workplace is just beyond the door, and the presence of management—on noticeboards, or the hovering human clock-watchers in charge—is all around.

The break room at a Hobby Lobby store in Boise, Idaho, is the setting for Samuel D. Hunter’s Obie Award-winning 2010 play A Bright New Boise, and is no such refuge. In the revival currently playing at New York’s Signature Theatre, to March 12, the at-first-unassuming Will (Peter Mark Kendall) is trying to both escape and find something—if he doesn’t break himself in the process, that is. Initially he seems folded in on himself with shame.

Within Wilson Chin’s well-imagined, numbly plain set, the thing Will is trying to forget in this banal place is a terrible scandal at an evangelical church he was a member of. The thing he wants to reclaim is a relationship with his son Alex (Igancio Diaz-Silverio, drily surly and spiky) who he gave up for adoption 17 years previously. Alex nervously contemplates his overtures, both personal and religious.

Also suspicious of his beliefs and motives, with good reason, is Leroy (Angus O’Brien), Alex’s brother, who wears T-shirts with confrontational slogans. Anna (Anna Baryshnikov) is a quiet co-worker, who forms a bond with Will as a fellow employee who hides away at the end of the working day to spend quiet time after lights out—and the store has been locked up—in the break room.

Store manager Pauline (Eva Kaminsky) is in charge of this group of people; Kaminsky is the standout performer of the play, supplying a constant, very funny, scene-dominating comedy of exasperation as things and people fall apart, and she just wishes her underlings would get on with their jobs in service of the productive small-scale model of capitalism she is proud to have constructed and oversee. Will and his destabilizing presence—he is both recessive and combative—threaten to destroy all her best-laid plans.

That Kaminsky emerges as such a forceful presence is one of the curios of this solid, if static-feeling play, directed by Oliver Butler. It is beached between comedy and drama, with the comedy a relief amid the play’s darker interrogations of the soul and motivation.

Will is a strange character to observe, and presumably to play. One moment we see the absentee dad trying to do the right thing, and get to know and help his clearly vulnerable—both physically and mentally—teenage son. The next he is a fulminating religious maniac, banging on about the Rapture and apocalypse.

In a 2017 PBS interview, Hunter explained: “I went to a fundamentalist Christian high school in Idaho, so that makes my relationship to that worldview complex in some ways. I have so many objections to it, but I’m also fascinated by religious extremism and religious people. It’s an issue that begs us to understand it in a more profound way than we do right now… As secular humanists in this country, our initial reaction is just to say that fundamentalists believe because they are either dumb or crazy. A Bright New Boise is trying to bring some humanity and empathy to these people who I think we have this knee jerk reaction to.”

Yet, whatever the play intends, Will doesn’t invite understanding. You want to move away from him, as you do any crazy-seeming person, not listen to any of his strident, disturbed rambling. Even Anna, a gentle, live-and-let-live Lutheran, who clearly likes Will, runs from his bug-eyed lunacy eventually, after he scorns what he perceives as her minor-key, non-committal Christian faith.

In Will, we get no sense of a person faltering between impulses; just the sporadic, inexplicable expressions of what he might be feeling in the moment. He is such a gross, intolerant zealot that whatever cries of confusion and pain he voices ring hollow. Even when we find out where some of this pain is rooted, it changes nought; he just seems unpleasant and damaged and possibly psychotic and a danger to others. The play doesn’t seem to know what to do with him, and neither do his fellow characters, or we, the audience too.

The notion of a destructive, crazy religious sect is a familiar one, and an even more familiar and present one when Hunter originally wrote the play. This was also a time when the Hobby Lobby was a Christian-owned craft store, whose name did not more immediately summon up the social controversies and culture wars that became the hallmark of the brand from 2012 onwards.

While its central protagonist is such a weird, unknowable thorn, this is a fluent, well-acted production, with a striking lighting design by Jen Schriever that enlivens not just the charged airlessness of the break room, but also transports us outside to a busy highway. There, the damaged and damaging Will faces his destiny, and the key question of whether he will do right by his son, or remain in service to the reason-defying extremities of the faith he has thus far so zealously embraced. In that final respect, the title of the play is darkly ironic.