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Review: 'Hunter Gatherers' at Second Thought Theatre

by Jerome Weeks 21 Jan 2010 8:00 AM

Don’t let the civilized, gourmet-wine-lover look fool you. These people will tear you apart with their teeth and violate the remains. Second Thought Theatre’s comedy, Hunter Gatherers, posits that it doesn’t take much to trigger the beast within us — just some fine food and old friends. Too bad Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s play feels both over-the-top and undercooked.


Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit dinner. But not much else: Second Thought Theatre’s Hunter Gatherers

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[Jeopardy theme music]

We’re back with Jeopardy! The category is ‘American Theater for 300.’ And the answer is: Two couples get drunk, argue about adultery and cooking. Soon, their evening turns ugly.


“Alex, what is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”


Sorry! But in Albee’s play, no one cares about cooking! No, the play is actually Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Hunter Gatherers, getting its area premiere from Second Thought Theatre at the Addison Conference and  Theatre Centre. Nachtrieb is a rising young San Francisco playwright – another of his comedies, boom, will be staged by Kitchen Dog Theater next month

So let’s hope boom is better. The premise of Hunter Gatherers is that when it comes to sex or eating, humans quickly revert to our more bestial instincts — given the right circumstances. Actually, any old dinner party will do, provided the successful young couples are long-time friends with gourmet pretensions, simmering resentments and adulterous longings.


A little wine-tasting and some spouse-swapping? Liza Gonzalez, Gregory Lush, Lydia Mackay and Mike Schraeder

So what quickly happens is a lot of chest-thumping and mate-stealing. But these activities can be more easily explained, not by anthropology, but by the way comedy writers often opt for sex and violence, for extreme characters in loud confrontations. It makes their job easier. That’s how this play began life and that’s how it still plays — as an extended comedy sketch. Each couple here has a nebbishy, domestic type conveniently mismatched with a sex-hungry carnivore who sees everything as a contest he or she must win — whether it’s child-bearing, dinner preparation or homoerotic wrestling.  Someone must be defeated for them to enjoy anything.

One could forgive Nachtrieb’s dramatic shorthand if the play were funnier or more surprising. But in their lust for the “real,” for the “primitive” (and for each other), the two carnivore-spouses also tend to deliver flights of overblown self-justification — adding tedium to irritation. The top dog in this foursome, for instance, is Richard, played with tendon-stretching, nostril-flaring energy by Gregory Lush. Here, he’s talking to the lamb he’s about to sacrifice for a very rare meat course.

RICHARD: “Hold still. You are in for a treat. You are about to be transformed from just another sheep in a field — to something extraordinary.”

Later, Richard’s timid wife (Liza Gonzalez) mercifully deflates some of this: “It’s really only dinner,” she finally yells. But such puncturings of the overwrought dialogue are  too little, too late.

In fact, one’s initial response to the Second Thought production is that director Jonathan Taylor should have instructed his actors not to go immediately full-bore, to aim instead for something more offhand. But it’s soon plain that Nachtrieb’s comic characters were never meant to be realistic. So Taylor’s choice to go all-out from the get-go makes sense, although it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem here.

That problem is the narrative process of Nachtrieb’s play. He wants to reduce his characters to their bare-bones instincts, to their drives for survival and genetic propagation.  But his play starts with people who are already stripped-down caricatures. The only complication he can add is the moral and mental development that allowed civilization to thrive: Alpha males and females don’t always win. But this means his characters seem even more as if they’re guided by his thesis (civilization is a veneer over biology) than by anything they might think or feel.

Smart, handsome production design has been a hallmark of Second Thought Theatre, and Hunter Gatherers certainly fits the bill,  thanks to designer Clare Floyd Devries. Her modern loft looks sleek but it also nicely underscores the play’s primal bent, accessorized as it is with raw wood, tribal carvings and Jonathan Brooks’ grim, skeletal paintings.

But as a play that really strips humans to their squirming essence, Hunter Gatherers can’t touch Albee. In that regard, Hunter Gatherers — for all its bluster and comic violence — is too much like a sheep in Virginia Woolf‘s clothing.