Orange County Theatre Reviews

Written by Scotty Keister

The Rapture, it seems, will be delayed. Samuel D. Hunter’s 2011 Obie Award-winning play, “A Bright New Boise,” now running at Chance Theater, shines a rather searing blowtorch on rapture/last days church cults, but not without both heartbreak and major laughs.

The setting is the break room and adjacent parking lot of Hobby Lobby, a national chain of arts and crafts stores (read Michael’s) where Will has arrived, seeking employment. When interviewed by store manager Pauline, Will is somewhat elusive about his recent past, but the store needs help so Will is hired. Will’s secrets become the backbone of what is essentially a mystery play. It’s hard to say too much about the plot without giving up spoilers, but I can go so far as to say Will is ostensibly there to reconnect with his teenage son Alex, given up for adoption at birth. Alex is also a Hobby Lobby employee and is not even sure at first if Will is for real. Also distrustful, but in a more aggressive manner, is Alex’s adoptive and highly protective older brother Leroy, a pretentious and confrontational art student who is the resident “art expert” at the store. The final employee is the bookish, goofy nerd, Anna, who immediately bonds with Will over the blog he writes in the break room after closing hours. As the characters all get to know each other better, Will’s past gradually emerges and his relationship with Alex is both enriched and threatened, to a cathartic breaking point. We eventually do learn about Will’s connection to a past tragedy he would sooner forget. Whether any of it is true or not remains to be seen, and this is the path along which the play leads us. Is Will a good guy, is he nuts, has he committed some great crime? From time to time, even Will himself isn’t sure.

All the performers excel here. Chance resident artist and managing director Casey Long lends his character Will a likable exterior that conceals a chilling darkness. Andrew Guerrero starts off slowly playing Alex until he gets comfortable enough to open up to Will. Guerrero does enormous work simply with his posture at times in a very convincing portrayal of a suicidal and complex kid. David Christian Vera makes the most of a mostly underwritten role as Leroy, playing his confrontational anger to serious comic effect. Another Chance resident artist/director, Alex Bueno has some great funny moments as Anna. Karen Jean Olds seems far too young to be playing Pauline, a role seemingly written for the likes of Kathy Bates, but she cranks up her Fargo accent and pulls off some of the biggest laughs in the show. The heart of the show really belongs to Will, and Long manages to make him both contemptible and sympathetic. I found myself rooting for Will, at the same time wishing he wasn’t who he seemed to be.

Trevor Biship’s direction is first-rate. The pace is relentless, the comic timing always works, and Bruch Goodrich’s scenic design and Jeff Polunas’ sound design all function in perfect harmony to lend a slightly oppressive, yet natural setting to the work. The Hobby Lobby break room is genius, down to the overhead fluorescent lights, the emergency exit lights over the door and the ancient malfunctioning microwave. An eccentric touch is the break room TV monitors which are supposed to be endlessly satellite-broadcasting some corporate treacle from the two ostensible owners of the chain, but instead frequently picks up an operating room broadcast in nightmarish surgical close-up.  The concrete pillars and light standards, along with painted parking slots surrounding the main stage area seemed so real I found myself scrutinizing them continually. In a play where the supernatural is always just a heartbeat away, that realistic setting is essential, else we as the audience lose our footing.

I know it sounds like it, but the play is not bashing religion. The most heartful character in the show is Anna, who is a proud Lutheran, and brags about all the community service her church is involved in. The play is concerned with faith, the loss of faith, and how any attempt to bond with the almighty at the expense of human relationships can be a risky proposition. There are no answers here, just some mighty provocative questions evoked by some likable, funny and ultimately heartbreaking people.

“A Bright New Boise” runs through October 25 on the Cripe Stage at Chance Theater in Anaheim.

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