Tom Kee, Denise Cormier, Marc Carver, and Laura Latreille
in Hunter Gatherers
(© Jeff Zinn)
Tom Kee, Denise Cormier, Marc Carver, and Laura Latreille
in Hunter Gatherers
(© Jeff Zinn)
Edward Albee may have definitively stripped the veneer off civilization, marital division in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But in Hunter Gatherers, now making its East Coast debut under the direction of Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre co-founder Gip Hoppe, young playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb rips the lid off the same subject with unrestrained absurdist humor. His script, which won him the 2006 Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, might not have the deep resonance of Albee's classic dissection, but this two-couple tussle has laughs aplenty.

It also has an entire lamb carcass, as alpha male and self-styled Iron chef Richard (Tom Kee) decides to go whole hog and bring home a live little bleater (played onstage by a bumptious little Lambchop puppet trying to bat its way out of a cardboard box). Richard's gambit doesn't go over so well with his people-pleaser of a wife, Pam (Laura Latreille), who's left to clean up the mess -- and get over the trauma -- before their best friends from high school, mismatched couple Tom and Wendy (Marc Carver and Denise Cormier), show up for their annual reunion dinner.

A pecking order of sorts is immediately established, with Richard indisputably ruling the roost. In addition to patronizing Pam (he calls her "Skipper," when it's perfectly clear who's steering this foundering ship of a marriage), Richard has made a lifelong habit of humiliating Tom, and he clearly holds Wendy in his sexual thrall. Wendy is another self-assertive type. Swanning about the couple's drop-dead Golden Gate-view condo --Rob Bissinger's set is as impressive as it is ingenious -- Wendy feigns admiration for meek Pam, all the while plotting a coup that couldn't be more egocentric.

For their part, Pam and Tom defer to each other when it comes to pride of last place. Virtually every volley of over-entitled GenX badinage is pointed and hilarious. "You are healing me," Wendy intones to Pam, eyes locked, when they hug upon greeting. (We immediately know right off the bat she's a card-carrying phony.) And when she asks, intently, "How are you? Really. Really. I mean, how are we all, really?" -- while never pausing for an answer - we've got her number, even if Pam remains clueless.

But we begin to wonder how much of Pam's blindness is willful. Later, when Tom tries to convince her that their respective spouses are doing more than "stuffing mushrooms" while holed up, noisily, in the kitchen, she refuses to entertain the notion: "I will not cross that line."

Subsequently, a great many lines get crossed. Occasionally you can't believe your eyes at the acts being enacted onstage. Still, none of these shocking overtures are inserted just for shock value. Strip it down to interpersonal dynamics, and the play really is a character study -- just a very funny take on that genus, with literally no holds barred.

Amazingly, Nachtrieb has pulled off a double coup: You end up caring about these characters (even though they verge on caricature and then some), plus he manages to keep the laughs rolling even after the body count starts to rise. With this work, the 33-year-old playwright has nimbly vaulted into the exalted company of Pinter, Shepard, and Durang. It'll be thrilling to watch where he goes from here.

Meanwhile, lots of brave companies around the country, large and small, are going to want to try this exercise on for size -- testing their audiences' tolerance in the process. They'll have a hard time, though, topping WHAT for optimal casting and powerful staging.