Loneliness, one of the most elemental of emotions and an inextricable part of the human experience, serves as the basis for, or at least informs, much great art. Think of the solitary figure in Edvard Munch’s haunting The Scream. Or watch Christian Bale descend into isolated, emaciated madness in The Machinist. Or marvel at the subjective hell of Jean- Paul Sartre’s No Exit. Or nod your head knowingly to Jimi Hendrix singing that “loneliness is such a drag.”
Like love, sorrow, wonder and joy, loneliness may serve as excellent inspiration for art. Translating that inspiration into a superlative final product, however, is no easy feat. In the context of live theater, it requires the playwright, the director and the actors — among others — to excel individually in order to astound collectively.
The Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC) achieves this difficult, lofty goal the vast majority of the time. During the past decade or so that I have been reviewing BETC productions, I can count on one hand the instances when I was underwhelmed or disappointed. Unfortunately, The Few tops that very short list.
Set in 1999 for no particularly compelling reason, The Few, an alleged meditation on and explication of loneliness, features three characters and one location. The location is a rundown office in a trailer off of I-90 in northern Idaho. The office is the home of the titular trucker-centric newspaper. QZ (Lindsey Pierce) runs the paper. Nineteen-year-old Matthew ( John Hauser) is QZ’s sole employee. The play opens with the unheralded return of the paper’s owner, and QZ’s former lover, Bryan (Michael Morgan).
Four years earlier, following the traumatic loss of one of QZ and Bryan’s closest friends, Bryan disappeared without a word or a trace. During his absence, QZ took what was essentially a loose collection of musings and ramblings about life on the road — one that was hemorrhaging cash — and turned it into a hardcopy truckers’ Tinder whose cover-to-cover personals ads are broken up only by horoscopes and a column, both penned by QZ. Thanks to these changes, QZ has been eking from the paper the tiniest of profits.
From the first scene, Bryan and QZ fight. They fight about the content of the newspaper. They fight about Bryan abandoning both the paper and QZ.
For most of the play’s 90 minutes, they yell and weep and damn near rend their clothing, this all leading up to an unwarranted and unsatisfying conclusion. The only respites from the marathon lovers’ quarrel are a handful of scenes in which Matthew desperately tries to make peace to save the paper and, thereby, his job.
The circumstances needed for The Few to diverge to such a degree from BETC’s usual level of accomplishment boggles my mind. BETC has an almost uncanny ability to choose outstanding plays to produce. Samuel D. Hunter has been touted as a gifted, young playwright by many people over the past few years, and BETC appears to have believed the hype. But based on The Few, Hunter’s reputation is just that, hype. The Y2K setting is facile and reflects Hunter’s inability to say anything substantial about the focus of his play — loneliness. Each of the three characters is defined by a single trait, and the plot, such as it is, meanders along without momentum or direction.
BETC is a bastion of superb acting. Even in its occasionally lesser shows, the work of the actors is nearly always a highlight. Yet in The Few all three performances feel forced, almost amateurish. Pierce, who I praised in BETC’s Mauritius, plays QZ with such stridency that it is difficult to identify with her, let alone sympathize with her. I enjoyed Hauser in BETC’s 2014 production of Ambition Facing West, but his Matthew is so cranked up I wondered if he was on crank. His stammering, wild-eyed energy, serves as a caricature rather than a character. Morgan, a Denver Post Ovation Award winner, mumbles and fumbles his way along as Bryan rather than emoting in any meaningful way.
All of which leads me to wonder about the direction provided by Kate Folkins. Her resume is filled with work at the venerable Denver Center and Curious Theatre, but one has to wonder how much of The Few’s failure rests on her shoulders. Pacing, tone, line deliveries, even blocking are the province of the director, after all.
Pick your metaphor. The Few jackknifes. It spins out. It’s a stretch of rough road. It hits every pothole. It had me saying, “Mothertrucker!” only maybe not quite so family-friendly.