I ought to be able to remember who it was who said that the three essential themes of all great drama (or was it comedy?) are sex, death, and food—but I can’t. That the statement is true, however, is being proved downtown at Bricolage, where the Pittsburgh premiere of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s new play Hunter Gatherers is on stage through May 7. Nachtrieb has taken those three essential ingredients, added a big dollop of hubris and several dashes of neurosis and self-doubt, and whipped up a deliciously macabre comedy about the survival of the fittest in the modern age.
In the opening moment of the play, a grocery-bag laden Pam has just entered her well-appointed urban loft to find her rubber-apron-clad husband, Richard, attempting to slaughter a lamb in their living room. (If you’re like me, you don’t need to know anything more about this play to want to see it). It’s the evening of their annual get-together with their closest friends, Wendy and Tom, and Richard is determined to produce an exquisite meal. He convinces a reluctant (and understandably traumatized) Pam to help with the grisly task at hand by drawing on her desire to give to these friends, whom they have known since high school. When Wendy and, somewhat later, Tom arrive for the gathering we immediately understand something about the violence required to produce that gift: as in many cultural settings, here the gift of food also becomes a weapon in an intricate and complex (and very very funny) game of power, competition, sexual attraction and status among the four members of the species homo sapiens. The plot is simple–a dinner party goes awry in every possible way (did I mention there is sex and death as well as food?)–but the material is provocative, probing the boundaries between the animal and the human, the instinctual and the civilized, wants and needs, and surviving and thriving.
Nachtrieb not only gives the actors a lot of great comic dialogue to work with but also the chance to play characters whose superegos have lost the fight with their ids. Actors Michael Fuller, Tressa Glover, Amy Landis, and Jonathan Visser have a rollicking good time with their roles. Glover makes the pushover Pam both pathetic and likeable; Landis channels Wendy’s envy-driven rage with superb comic effect; and Visser, a newcomer to Pittsburgh, is outrageously out-of-the-box in the role of Richard, the über-Alpha male. In some of the early scenes it was hard to tell if Fuller’s stiffness as the whipped Tom was awkward acting or acting awkward, but by the end of the play he, too, was in full comic stride. Jeff Carpenter’s direction is broad and big and bold and—as promised in the mission statement—absolutely “full blooded.” Special effects designer Steve Tolin deserves a special shout out here, too: there are some terrifically done special effects, including a pathetically bleating lamb in a cardboard box and a moment with a knife towards the end that may be one of the ickiest funny things I’ve seen on stage in many years.
I’ve missed too many things I wish I had seen at Bricolage over the last couple of years (Neighborhood 3, Speech & Debate), and I’m glad I didn’t miss this one. Five days after seeing Hunter Gatherers, I’m still chewing on it — always a good sign (even if roast lamb may not be on the dinner menu for a while).