‘A Bright New Boise’ Off Broadway Review: Hobby Lobby May Be Even Worse Than You Imagined

An early play from Samuel D. Hunter has echoes of his new movie, “The Whale”

Joan Marcus

In his most recent play, the absolutely terrific “A Case for the Existence of God,” Samuel D. Hunter doesn’t mention the All Mighty or religion or (thank heaven!) the rapture. In a much earlier play, innocuously titled “A Bright New Boise,” Hunter’s characters do little else but talk about Him and religion and the rapture. Or to put it another way, they not only question how it’s all going to end, they also yammer on about the meaning of life if there is no God.

“A Bright New Boise,” first presented in 2010, had its Off Broadway premiere Tuesday at the Pershing Square Signature Center under the auspices of the Signature Theatre Company – and it’s a good thing that Hunter got all that sophomore angst out of his system so he could go on to write much better plays.

Hunter wrote “Boise” a couple years before his play “The Whale,” which he recently adapted into an Oscar-nominated film directed by Darren Aronofsky. Brendan Fraser stars as the very overweight and lovable lead character, and the film fits neatly into that small but oft-honored genre of movies that could be labeled Obesity Porn. Lee Daniels’s 2009 film, “Precious,” starring Gabourey Sibide, is an earlier example of an overweight lead character being abused and ridiculed for our entertainment. Who knows how much “Precious” inspired or influenced “The Whale”?

“Boise” is an off-shoot of those two films, one that could be called Blue Collar Porn, or, more accurately, Blue Jacket Porn. Here, theater audiences are put in a position of superiority over characters earning a minimum wage of less than eight dollars an hour and limited to working only 38 hours a week to prevent them from receiving benefits from their place of employ – in this case, the ultra-conservative Hobby Lobby.

The store’s dedicated but slightly fascistic manager (Eva Kaminsky) interviews a prospective employee (Peter Mark Kendall) in the arts-and-craft store’s locker room and kitchen (realistic set by Wilson Chin), and the mere mention of Hobby Lobby is enough to provoke audience laughter of condescension. It’s not long before a trio of colorful blue-jacket-clad workers file into this leisure space to delight us with their provincial quirks, which can be tagged as pretty but dim-witted (Anna Baryshnikov), withdrawn but subject to anxiety attacks (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio) and strong but prone to wearing pornographic T-shirts (Angus O’Brien). Each worker gets to expose his or her quaint Idahoan bizarreness upon meeting the basically nondescript New Guy before, drip by drip, details of some weird religious cult in upstate Idaho begin to surface in these otherwise shaggy dog conversations.

Hunter wrote “Boise” 13 years ago, so perhaps he can be forgiven for sensationalizing an incident of violence that in this age of daily mass-shootings would not warrant a mention on the local evening news, even in Boise, Idaho.

More problematic are all the Evangelical Nonsense 101 conversations this incident provokes. At one point amid all the apocalypse chatter, Kaminsky delivers a diatribe on how money derived from selling construction paper and Styrofoam balls at Hobby Lobby is all that really counts in life. At the performance I attended, her speech received an ovation from the audience.

Oliver Butler expertly directs a very talented ensemble.