There was nothing canine about the “rude mechanicals,” however. Garbed in city workers’ jumpsuits and arriving by golf cart, they were 100 percent porcine, tasty ham. Led by Trinity Rep stalwart Fred Sullivan Jr. as an ebulliently grandstanding Bottom in realistic ass’s head and Larry Coen as a no-nonsense-cop-turned-quavering-thespian of a Peter Quince, the troupe also boasted in Paul Melendy a cracked ballet star of a Flute. As Thisby, this screaming meemie had no qualms about piling horror-movie distress atop Bottom’s Edgar Allan Poe–worthy death scene, which capped enthused and protracted hara-kiri with the extraction of an audibly beating heart. Too bad this funny, sinewy, carnival-colored Dream popped its balloon so quickly.
The inner caveman and cavewoman break out of their yuppie carapace with a vengeance in Hunter Gatherers, 33-year-old Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s breakout work, winner of this year’s Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. Currently in an impressive East Coast premiere on Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater’s handsome new Julie Harris Stage (through September 1), the absurdist comedy first saw light courtesy of a West Coast troupe called Killing My Lobster — which is pretty funny given that its opening scene will seem to New Englanders more grotesque than crustacean killing. As the lights go up on a towering condo loft with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, a lusty amateur cook prepares to slaughter a bleating lamb in a cardboard box, the container jumping around with the soon-to-be-dinner’s panic. As the evening progresses, its affluent Gen-X anniversary party devolving into Darwinian chaos, Donald Margulies’s Dinner with Friends gives way to Edward Albee’s The Goat. Of course, the appetizer of ritual sacrifice should tip us off that we’re not headed into The Importance of Being Earnest.
Nachtrieb, a San Francisco State University playwriting grad who cites Albee as an influence, has learned his lessons well. The problem with Hunter Gatherers is that those lessons are written all over it — the play, with its theme of primitive urges pulsing under a thin veneer of civilization, bears the stamp of centuries of dramatic literature, from The Bacchae to Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class and True West. Nachtrieb does have a particular generation in mind and particular outrages up his sleeve: neither Euripides nor Shepard has given us the artist as satyr, raging through his apartment in a state of reproductive euphoria, a priapic protuberance attached to a Baggie emerging from his fly. And fake erections are the least of the play’s technical challenges, which include a spectacular glass wall falling to rubble and then the San Francisco Bay view going south as the call of the wild screeches loud and clear.
Gip Hoppe, whose directing credits range from his own political farces to Blue’s Clues Live, is at the helm of the giddy production, which captures the play’s cruel craziness even as the excellent performances minimize its implausibilities. Among the two mismatched couples, who have been a quartet since high school, we are meant to accept that valedictorian Pam has been happily married to gonzo, thick-headed, testosterone-driven Richard for 16 years while fecundity-fueled Wendy has chafed with second choice Tom, Richard’s whipping boy turned depressive MD. The couples, who live 45 minutes apart, get together only once a year for this ritual celebration that includes Richard’s wrestling Tom into physical submission before wrestling Wendy into various sexual positions in the kitchen, their piston-like coupling reflected if also blurred by a glass-block wall. The infidelity is no surprise to Tom, whose fondest sensual memories have to do with tending Richard. It’s when the trusting Pam discovers — after failing to comprehend Wendy’s bulldozing, Big Chill–ish request for her husband’s sperm — that “everything I believe is a lie” that the evening takes off, with Keystone Kops ferocity, into mayhem carnal, lethal, and gastronomic.