Equal parts anthropology and light comedy, Hunting and Gathering ponders the spiritual implications of a lifestyle that leads people to say things like “I’ll take the air mattress. You can have the futon.” The young New Yorkers in Brooke Berman’s play aren’t exactly rootless—they have families, a few even have jobs—but definitely aren’t Settled. They couch-surf, sublet, or crash, and speak with a wry wisdom about the relative virtues of each. House-sitting, Ruth tells us, involves reading all of your host’s books and copying all of his CDs but typically not eating his food. “It’s more a cultural experience than a culinary one,” she explains.
Ruth—the heroine of Berman’s story, deftly played by Keira Naughton—has amassed this knowledge on a fifteen-year postcollege odyssey, one that has led her through some two dozen apartments in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and even across the Hudson once or twice. As the story begins, she’s suffering aftershocks from a bad, busted relationship with Jesse (Jeremy Shamos), a young academic who was married when they got together. She turns for support to Jesse’s burly half-brother, Astor (Michael Chernus), a fellow floater constantly seeking the ideal roommates, the kind of people who like to “sit up on the roof late at night with a six-pack or two. A twelve. And some whiskey. And cigarettes. And the stars. Getting wiser.”
Possibly this sounds familiar—an echo of the precious tale of postcollegiate self-discovery that led you to walk out of some indie film or to fling some Brooklyn novel against a wall. Playwrights lately have proven no more successful than other writers in depicting the unstable late-late-adolescent lives of single twenty- and thirtysomething New Yorkers. Berman’s play doesn’t set any new bar for depth of insight—or great originality, for that matter. In its last minute or so, it plunges to a level of cliché so corny that it made me briefly feel like a chump for having liked what came before. But then I went right back to liking it. And since then I’ve been telling my friends they’d probably do the same.
Partly this is because Berman makes breeziness engaging, a skill that helped her write one of my favorite plays of a few seasons back, the smart, stylish Smashing (recently optioned for film by Natalie Portman). Better than almost anybody now writing, she knows when to dramatize a scene (as when one of Ruth’s romances melts down over the telephone) and when to shoo everybody offstage so one actor can have a soliloquy, as when Astor tells us that “the weird thing about living with people is how you really live with them, you get to know them, you rely on them and they become part of you in some way that defies any of the words we currently use for who those people are.” (Chernus is a big man, but he has a light touch, and if Cameron Crowe made plays instead of movies, he’d never lack for work.)
If Berman doesn’t cinch tight the link between one’s address and the condition of one’s soul, she does a sparkling job with a relationship that has nothing to do with real estate. One day after class, Jesse is propositioned by a student: the 20-year-old Bess (a fine Mamie Gummer). She is confident; he is not. She knows the way to Ikea; he seems to fear the words assembly required.
You can certainly dismiss the idea that your generation has much to do with what kind of person you are. Still, something in the way that Berman draws the contrasts between Bess and Jesse rings essentially true: the gap between baffled, unmoored Generation X and its peppy successor, the keen-eyed, supercompetent Gen Y. Without making the point explicitly, the play gains an underlying pathos from the presence of this hard-charging youngster. Even as Berman’s thirtysomething characters struggle to figure themselves out, they face new competition in the hunt for a livable 1BR from kids with higher credit ratings and fancier Facebook widgets. It’s enough to make you cling all the more dearly to your worn-out flannel, your favorite lines from Clerks, your Singles soundtrack …