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A CurtainUp Review
Hunting and Gathering

In the mind of a woman for whom no place is home the thought of an end of all flights is unbearable. . .— from Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being which playwright Brooke Berman read quite a bit during her own reflections on the concept of Home during a period where she found herself having to move again and again.
Hunting and Gathering
Mamie Gummer and Keira Naughton in Hunting and Gathering
(Photo: James Leynse)
The romantic and real estate adventures (or rather mis-adventures) of the characters in Brooke Berman's poignantly funny new play now premiering under the auspices of Primary Stages, bear some kinship to the gang in the long running Seinfeld sitcom. More than a few Seinfeld episodes revolved around Elaine's or George's quest for a desirable apartment (meaning in Manhattan and at a less than astronomical rent). But while Berman writes dialogue that's smart and funny enough to probably get her a well-paying TV comedy gig, Hunting and Gathering is more than an entertaining take on a group of singles between twenty and the mid-thirties, all of whom are navigating the difficulties of finding a home, not just in the physical sense, but in terms of feeling at home with themselves.

As Berman's essay entitled Home that's inserted into the program makes clear, the real estate travails summarized in the hilarious, photo illustrated opening monologue are more than a little autobiographical. It seems that, for a variety of reasons, Berman spent the last fifteen years in over thirty apartments. This absurdly funny and at times sad nomadic existence prompted deeper ruminations on the meaning of home as summed up in her essay's tagline: "it's not a physical place, but also, sometimes, it is."

review continues below

The play built from the author's many moves encompasses both the comedic aspects of dealing with New York's affordable apartment shortage and also the weightier subtext about finding one's place in the sense of surviving without compromising oneself. The slick comedy with its many timely cultural references to Craig's List amd real estate jargon that propels Hunting and Gathering, and the clever way the characters are individualized yet interconnected, outshines the more serious elements. Yet, that interconnectedness, not only gives the play its momentum but allows Berman to give her characters depth without burdening us with more than just enough background information.

The direction by Leigh Silverman, who's become something of a doyenne of touchingly quirky contemporary comedies (Well, Yellow Face), serves the serio-comic script well. She has seen to it that the monologues and scenes work as a tight assemblage. Thuse, the words of one character are often finished by the next one to take center stage. Under Silverman's astute direction, the direct address monologues, which in some plays comes off as facile playwriting, here help to strengthen and add color to the collage effect.

This production is also well served by the four member cast. The two women are played by two increasingly impressive and visible second generation actors: Keira Naughton and Mamie Gummer (both strongly resembling their famous parents, James Naughton and Meryl Streep). Naughton is touching and believable as a woman who has reached her thirties feeling lost and untethered. Mamie Gummer is terrific as the younger but more self-assured Bess.

Michael Chernus and Jeremy Shamos who have been cast and praised in enough shows to probably afford over-priced rents are well paired as Jesse and Astor. Shamos, last seen as a trouble priest in 100 Saints You Should Know, brings the understated sublety of that role to Hunting and Gathering's most substantial character, who's smart enough to be a Columbia College literature professor but clueless about what it takes to be a good husband, lover or brother.

Without giving away all the ins and outs of the plot, here's how Ruth, Bess, Astor and Jesse all are caught up in apartment problems and with each other. . .

Thirty-ish Ruth has the opening monologue with the accompanying slide show of all her apartments (shares, sublets, housesits). She's also been in and out of lots of relationships, most recently with a married man who is, of course, none other than Jesse. Jesse's affair with Ruth ended but so did his marriage so that we find him moving into an apartment and for the first time having to deal with household necessities previously handled by his ex-wife.

Younger brother Astor is on hand to help Jesse get settled. He wouldn't mind moving into the spare room Jesse plans to uses as an office to end having to "couch surf " or getting free sleeping privileges on other people's couches. While Jesse and Ruth no longer see each other, Astor and Ruth remain good friends and have more sibling intimacy than the men.

To round out the quartet, there's Bess, the aggressive 20-year-old who's in a multiple share in Park Slope. The four-way connection between all the characters is completed when Bess decides that auditing Jesse's class makes it okay for them to date.

There are a lot of knots to unravel here. For Ruth finding out who she wants to be starts with a chance meeting with Bess playing a video game called "Buck Hunter." You'll have to see the play fo find out if l she becomes a know-what-you-want and go-for-it "hunter" like Bess, or opts for being a "gatherer" who allows herself to emerge into a new form from what's already there, like a butterfly from a cocoon.

The video game is a novel and nicely staged if somewhat overcooked metaphor. But Gummer makes it such fun that it seems curmudgeonly not to love it. My one quibble is the outer borough bashing which has become a cliche in any play with references to the bridges and tunnel locations near Manhattan. Such over-used verbal shtik is beneath someone gifted enough to write dialogue like this exchange between the two brothers: When Jesse suggests that "a real job" might help Astor to have a place of his own, Astor tells him "I have, like ten 'real jobs'" but adds that he's looking for something more, " Like Henry David Thoreau." Jesse priceless response to this is "Henry David Thoreau brought his laundry home to his mother the entire time he lived in Walden Pond."

As praiseworthy as the snappy dialogue and solid direction and acting is David Korin's deceptively simple set and the way it realizes the playwright and director's vision of a collage. When you first take your seat, all you see is a New York skycape constructed from brown cartons. But as in H.M.S. Pinafore skim milk masquerades as cream, so Korin's cardboard collage reveals doors that swing open to roll out props and such necessities as a refrigerator. Miranda Hoffman's costumes, Ben Stanton's lighting and Robert Kaplowitz's original music and sound design further add to the visual pleasure of this play which extends the impressive credits Ms. Berman has managed to chalk up despite her extended "homelessness."

Links to Other Reviews of Plays by Brooke Berman
Smashing (2003)
The Triple Happiness (2004)

Postscript: Within hours or posting this review I received the follow email from Betsy Cummings which I thought I'd share. Not surprisingly Betsy lives in Astoria :

Good for you, Elyse, to take Brooke Berman to task for all those dumb and, yes, cliched remarks about Astoria. If Astor had visited that Greek bakery or any of the other great restaurants in Astoria and other sections of Queens, he might have found quite a few Manhattan types who have migrated to the outer boroughs. Instead of MOMA's transient tenure in LIC, Ruth might have mentioned P.S. I in Long Island City which has long been a magnet for avant-garde art lovers.

These rent-poor Manhattan emigres now seem to have crowned Brooklyn as a sort of Second Manhattan. But if their destination is Queens, or God forbid the Bronx and Staten Island, they remain fodder for facile cracks even from people like this playwright who should know better.
Written by Brooke Berman
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Cast: Michael Chernus (Astor), Mamie Gummer (Bess), Keira Naughton (Ruth), and Jeremy Shamos (Jesse).
Sets:David Korins

Costumes: Miranda Hoffman
Lights: Ben Stanton
Sound: Robert Kaplowitz
Running Time: 90 minutes without intermission
Primary Stages in association with Daryl Roth and True Love Productions at 59E59 Theaters, (212) 840-9705
From 1/22/08; opening 2/03/08; closing 3/01/08.
Tuesdays at 7:00 p.m., Wednesdays through Friday at 8:00 p.m., and Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.
Tickets: $60 each
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at February 1st press preview

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