05/08/2014 11:13 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2014

First Nighter: Samuel D. Hunter's "The Few" is for the Many

In Samuel D. Hunter's outstanding play, The Whale, presented at Playwrights Horizons in the 2012-13 season, obese and suicidal Charlie ignores the pleas of those around him to improve his life, insisting that since the AIDS-related death of his male lover he has no reason to go on.

At the beginning of Hunter's almost equally outstanding new play, The Few, at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater after premiering at San Diego's Old Globe, Bryan (Michael Laurence), a somewhat unhealthily thin man, has returned to the shabby office of a truckers newspaper he helped found. After a long absence he's decided he hasn't much incentive to keep going and chooses to crash where they have to take him in.

With the two plays as evidence, it doesn't take much to twig that Hunter is caught up in the despairing notion that too often life offers few rewards. It's the lucky ones who find carrying on under the weight of a sorrowful existence worth the effort.

For further substantiation of Hunter's dire play-long message, a patron at The Few need only look at the photograph on the program cover. The black-white-&-grey image there shows a stretch of road on flat terrain. Aside from a post or two and the hint of a few trees in the distance, nothing else is on it--no cars, no people, no nothing. It might as well be a metaphor of the desolate soul.

Hunter, whose surname may be more relevant to his works than initially noticed, took the photograph. And since he did, it may be safe to assume the curving road to nowhere is a patch of land in western Montana, possibly near Missoula, and leading to and from Idaho.

That would make sense, since Hunter is from northern Idaho. Very possibly, a sense of unpromising isolation detectable in both his recently produced plays is endemic to the population 'round those parts. (Maybe check the fiction of Thomas McGuane and Annie Proulx for corroboration.)

The reason for mentioning Missoula is that the city is named when QZ (Tasha Lawrence), the onetime girlfriend to whom Bryan returns, brings it up late in the play. That's after the two of them tangle at length about the direction in which the paper, called The Few (hence the play's title), is going and/or should be going.

This is long after the opening scene where--when designer Eric Southern's lights go up on designer Dane Laffrey's appropriately run-down room--QZ seated at a cluttered desk glares for quite awhile at the crestfallen Bryan sitting across from her on a tired couch. When they finally speak, they rehash Bryan's abrupt departure four years back and QZ's needing to find a way to keep The Few afloat. She's done so, and profits are accruing.

Her success has happened because she's dropped almost all the editorial content in favor of personal ads placed by truckers. (Their various requests are made at regular intervals over an active answering machine.) QZ has also benefitted from the assistance of agitated 19-year-old Matthew (Gideon Glick), the otherwise homeless nephew of deceased Jim with whom Bryan and QZ started The Few.

The suspense Hunter brews concerns whether Bryan will explain why he took his extended powder and whether the explanation will get him back on skeptical QZ's good side. Not only that, but will Bryan, still drinking heavily to keep his demons at bay, convince QZ that the romantic sparks between them since high school can flare a-new? One hitch QZ makes explicit is that she's had a marriage proposal from a correspondent named Rick, whom she has yet to meet face-to-face.

While those two try unsuccessfully to sort out complications, Bryan has troubles with Matthew, who announces he's a fan of the columns Bryan wrote in the first few years the paper was publishing. They were essays that had a way of bringing lonely truckers together--often to actual meetings in the cramped office. Matthew clearly idolizes Bryan, which is more of an irritant for the object of that affection who's trying to deal with a low-self-worth psychological crisis.

The Few occupants' three-way tussle covers ground and time and runs to QZ's taking off in a grand gesture, to Matthew's maturing from a kid only hoping he can prove himself long enough to remain at The Few into a young man courageous enough to go after what he wants and to Bryan's deciding whether to stay the course, and even master it.

As the triangular bout extends, Hunter demonstrates great skill at the hard-bitten language resorted to by people barely clinging to the end of their tether. Its uncompromising language is guaranteed to have listeners hanging on every word. Two-thirds of the way through when Matthew badgers Bryan to speak about his frustrations on the road, the worn-out thin man says:

"After a while you start to feel like you don't exist. Like you're never in a place long enough to exist. You stop talking to people at gas stations and truck stops. You start avoiding restaurants where the waitresses might recognize you, you start sleeping in the back of your cab just so you don't have to talk to a hotel clerk. You go to diners and truck stops full of other long-haul guys, and you don't even look at each other."

Having listened to a speech like that (and it doesn't stop there), a spectator can forget about Bryan's despair and start concentrating on the internal despair beginning to take root, courtesy of the playwright's expertise.

That's the grip Hunter gets on his audience. It's a hold strengthened by director Davis McCallum, who also directed The Whale, in which Lawrence appeared. So what seems to be shaping up is a Hunter team to which Laurence and Glick can now be added. The three actors play together like troupers, each--with McCallum assiduously guiding them--conveying the heartbreak he or she is precariously verging on.

(By the way, the actors heard ordering the personal ads aren't in the cast list but are credited elsewhere in the program.)

Towards the end of the play--whether it's a happy conclusion for any of the three characters won't be revealed here--QZ looks piercingly at Bryan and asks, "How did we turn out to be such awful people?" Neither she nor Bryan nor Hunter supplies an answer, but it's likely more than a few patrons will leave with that question nagging at them--not only about the three lost figures they've just watched but secretly about themselves as well.

That's the sign of genuinely good theater.