John Russell, Emily Dahlke, Megan O'Leary, and Joseph W. Rodriguez in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's Hunter Gatherers, directed by Eric Tucker, at Duo Theatre.
John Russell, Emily Dahlke, Megan O'Leary, and Joseph W. Rodriguez in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's Hunter Gatherers, directed by Eric Tucker, at Duo Theatre.
(© Russ Ross)

From William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus to Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced, audiences love dinner parties that go wrong. Not only do they make good theater, they give playwrights a relatable means for exploring everything from society's ills to perverse human impulses. In Hunter Gatherers, which premiered in San Francisco in 2006, playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb takes this time-honored tableau in his own bizarre direction, adding to the menu a little animal sacrifice and attempted sodomy. The play, now running at Duo Theatre, doesn't always shock the way it seems intended to, with some of its quasi-absurdist dialogue and frank sexual humor not landing its punches as squarely on society's jaw as it might. Yet under Eric Tucker's direction it's undeniably engaging and disturbingly provocative.

Dinner preparations are under way for an annual gathering of four longtime friends. In a modestly furnished apartment, there's a large cardboard box with something thrashing about inside. Artist Richard (Joseph W. Rodriguez), who gives off a caveman vibe, has decided he wants to serve up fresh lamb, so he and his timid, easily persuadable wife, Pam (Emily Dahlke), reach into the box and slaughter one. Guest soon arrive: the hug-happy, death-obsessed Wendy (Megan O'Leary), who's been secretly boinking Richard for years, and her uptight doctor husband, Tom (John Russell), who's had his own "special" wrestling matches with Richard in the past. As wine is drunk, undercooked lamb consumed, and secret after secret revealed, primitive instincts and vengeful thoughts overtake the couples, leading to a violent game of survival of the fittest.

Director Eric Tucker, who also designed the set, brings energetic staging to Hunter Gatherers with strong performances that keep the play moving at a brisk pace. As Rodriguez steps onstage wielding a knife and grinning maniacally, we know we're in for a wild ride. Dahlke's Pam seems more like the rest of us, someone who occasionally gets drawn into situations that don't feel quite right — like animal slaughter in the living room. O'Leary gives a brilliant performance as Wendy, looking full of ferocious desire as she watches bestial Richard wrestle and nearly rape Tom, played by Russell like a quietly seething sinner who knows he's going to have to go to confession eventually.

Nachtrieb's exploration of human urges, which, as members of "civilized" society, most of us aggressively suppress, can't help but strike some chord with audiences, if only on a subconscious level. Nachtrieb makes his characters speak the way people might if their polite-conversation filters were turned off. This gives the dialogue an absurdist ring, but the humor, especially the sexual kind, too often goes limp. By the second act, Richard's sexual language and puns become groan-inducing. Sometimes subtlety is funnier than frankness.

Tucker's simple set design of a couch, a bed, a toilet, and a CD player from which blare '80s hits like "Eye of the Tiger" (sound design by Kenny Wade Marshall and Kat Meister) doesn't make it quite clear what sort of place Richard and Pam live in: posh or pedestrian. And Juliana Beecher's lighting design sometimes distracts between scenes, revealing actors' silhouettes as they leave the stage, thus breaking the emotional intensity that was built up just moments before. In the end, the production feels slightly undercooked, but for those who like their theater raw and juicy, Hunter Gatherers offers plenty to sink the teeth into.