Oversized Emotions Crowd the Underwhelming Clarkston

Sam Lilja and Heidi Armbruster in Clarkston.EXPAND
Sam Lilja and Heidi Armbruster in Clarkston.
Karen Almond

Many great American plays have been written about big moments in otherwise small lives. Death of a Salesman. Summer and Smoke. A Raisin in the Sun. In these, the characters are ordinary people facing life-altering events: the loss of a job, devastating heartbreak, the struggle to rise out of poverty and buy a home. These are universal themes that let us, the audience, relate to and care about what happens to the fictional beings onstage.

Then there are new plays like Clarkston, the Samuel D. Hunter drama now running in its world premiere in the Studio Theatre at the Wyly. It is a play about small people, too, but it arrives for its Dallas Theater Center production as a big deal, already the winner of a new play award from the Edgerton Foundation, the same honor previously given to Annie Baker’s The Flick and the musical Next to Normal, which both went on to win Pulitzers.

Hunter is a big deal, too, though he’s had only a handful of plays produced since 2010. (His drama The Whale, about a housebound 600-pound man, was done here by the tiny L.I.P. Service company in a converted Carrollton firehouse last October.) In 2014, at age 33, the playwright was named a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” which bestows more than half a million dollars on a few lucky winners each year to do with what they please. (Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda was one of this year’s MacArthur awardees.)

Expectations for Clarkston start higher on the scale than for many other new plays. And that DTC is doing it as a world premiere with a cast of three hired-in New York actors instead of any plucked from the company’s resident ensemble, well, that says something, too.

So is there genius in Clarkston? Are its characters this generation’s Willy Loman or Walter Lee Younger? Are these New York actors exponentially better in their roles than anyone in the local acting pool might have been? No, no and of course not.

Clarkston wants to be important; oh, it begs to be. But its premise is starved of new ideas, its dialogue is unremarkable (often just dull) and its characters are so unlikable and forgettable, you won’t remember their names or the actors who played them much past the post-show elevator ride down from the Wyly Studio to the lobby. (Honestly, if director Davis McCallum had cast this play from open auditions in Mesquite, he’d have found more suitable actors for the parts.)

Set in a Costco superstore in tiny Lewiston, Idaho (across the Snake River from Clarkston, Wash.), two young overnight stock clerks — Jake (Taylor Trensch) and Chris (Sam Lilja) — methodically refill shelves with cheese puffs in plastic tubs the size of ottomans. Jake is the shaky trainee. A recent Bennington College grad with a useless degree in “post-colonial gender studies,” Jake claims to be a descendant of William Clark, the half of the Lewis and Clark exploring duo for whom the towns are named. Jake has driven across the country from his home in Connecticut and, for reasons not quite clear, stopped in Lewiston to work before continuing west. His dream is to be accepted into the Iowa Writers Workshop (garsh, just like Hannah Horvath on HBO’s Girls).

In conversations riven with awkward pauses, Jake and Chris get to know each other as they stack merch. They’re both gay virgins riddled with fear and insecurity. Jake reveals he has a degenerative disease that eventually will cripple him. Chris admits that his mother, Trisha (Heidi Armbruster), is a meth addict. Later in the play, Trisha shows up at the Costco after her shift as a Denny’s waitress to unreel more exposition about her and Chris’ troubled lives. None of it is interesting and Armbruster, a Laura Linney lookalike, has the flat abs, velvety complexion and golden blond mane that reads more “Pilates addict” than meth head.

For about 90 minutes, Jake and Chris trade unhappy memories and meaningless chitchat as they push boxes of Goldfish crackers and giant TVs around the nearly bare stage in the little Wyly upstairs studio space. Scenic designer Drew Boyce provides just one tall set of rolling shelves to represent the vast expanse of a Costco superstore. Half the stage is supposed to be an empty parking lot. It’s all flat, gray and cold under banks of fluorescent lights.

When they’re not saying “What do you want to do, like, now?” to each other like teens on a sleepover, Jake is reading to Chris long passages from William Clark’s journal. We get it. They’re explorers, these guys, exploring sexuality in a sort of fumbling way. Exploring life in their 20s as self-defined losers. Exploring how dangerous it is to lift a heavy, big-screen television over your head when your muscles don’t work. If only there were a Sacagawea to lead these characters out of this dreary scenario and into a more colorful landscape. Playwright Hunter, with an assist from set designer Boyce, tries for something like that when Jake and Chris open a trap door on the set in the play’s final moments, but that move comes too late and is a too obvious bit of visual whizbangery to matter.

That’s it. That’s Clarkston, a play with about as much genius and substance in it as one of those giant tubs of cheese puffs.

Clarkston continues through January 31 in the Wyly Theatre Studio, 2400 Flora St. Tickets $18-$115 at 214-880-0202 or dallastheatercenter.org.

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