12/15/2014 10:14 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

First Nighter: Samuel D. Hunter Puts Pocatello on the Theater Map

Throughout MacArthur Fellowship recipient Samuel D. Hunter's outstanding play The Whale, at Playwrights Horizons in 2012, the main character is a gay man isolating himself by virtue of his obesity. Now back at PH with Pocatello, Hunter watches -- in a series of highly animated scenes -- another gay man who's isolating himself and has been isolated. Which condition came first is, like the chicken or egg, unclear.

Whereas the protagonist in The Whale can barely move, Pocatello's Eddie (T. R. Knight) is constantly on the go, as if trying to run away from himself. His personal racetrack is a financially troubled Italian restaurant that's part of a chain and might be an Olive Garden. Although it's on the brink of shuttering, Eddie is hoping he can revive it. His strategy is establishing family week, which is ballyhooed in a banner declaring "Famiglia Week" that Lauren Helpern includes on her amusingly generic eatery set.

Not only do the bright letters say it's Family Week inside, but they tell the audience that Pocatello is a play about families. Oh, yes, this is a play that gives a real workout to Leo Tolstoy's comment about unhappy families being unalike.

While restaurant staffers Troy (Danny Wolohan), Max (Cameron Scoggins) and Isabelle (Elvy Yost) -- all three of whom Eddie is keeping in the dark about business prospects -- attend to their duties, two families regularly invade the premises. They're Eddie's estranged mother (Brenda Wehle); older brother Nick (Brian Hutchison) and Nick's wife Kelly (Crystal Finn); and Troy's father Cole (Jonathan Hogan), wife Tammy (Jessica Dickey) and daughter Becky (Leah Karpel).

To the exclusion of other customers ever darkening the restaurant's doorstep, they air their woes ceaselessly. What's eating at Eddy's clan as they eat -- or don't -- is that his father shot himself a few decades earlier, and his demise splintered the immediate survivors seemingly beyond repair. Indeed, as much as Eddie's motivation is saving the Olive Garden branch (is there a pun somewhere about olive branches and peace?), he's even more fixated on reuniting the family.

Troy and Tammy find their 19-year-old marriage ossifying while they figure out how to handle daughter Becky's eccentricities. These involve her repeatedly throwing up not from bulimia, as she explains, but from disgust with pesticides and food insults of that sort. They're also dealing with dad Cole's senility. Though they make little headway with Becky, Cole or themselves, Eddie does get through to Becky by offering her a waitress stint she reluctantly takes.

Family reconciliation, then, is on Moscow, Idaho-born Hunter's agenda, as it is in The Whale, where father-daughter rapprochement surfaces. Whether the nonstop nagging, insulting, bickering and alienation -- in addition to waiter Max's meth addiction flaring -- remains consistently engaging is questionable.

Credulity is further strained by Hunter's allowing all the confrontations to be aired in the midst of a public place. If this is an Olive Garden or something along those lines, why aren't there ever any other diners? There are multitudes in commercials for Olive Garden et al.. I know there's such a thing as dramatic license, but there's also such a thing as taking too many liberties with it.

Hunter calls his play Pocatello because he's also examining small-town mentality -- or mentalities. (FYI, Moscow is separated from Pocatello by 348.15 miles.) Implying that Pocatello is a synecdoche for small towns everywhere, Hunter presents Eddie, who refuses to look anyplace else for a better life, in contrast to brother Nick, who left Pocatello for just that reason and is attending the family get-together against his wishes.

Obviously, Hunter is in Nick's corner but also concerned about the Eddies of this world. He's memorialized both in a good-but-not-surpassing work that does benefit greatly by a more-than-able cast -- Knight, especially -- and by regular Hunter collaborator, director Davis McCallum.