Since becoming a theater critic, I find myself on another tear beat, especially when I get to see plays by Samuel D. Hunter. His version is more localized, almost always set in the Idaho of his upbringing, where the flinty pride of the locals proves no match for the economic and personal disasters of deindustrialization. In “Pocatello,” the manager of a restaurant shovels his own pay into the till to keep the doors open, even as his family shuts its doors on him. The characters in “Lewiston/Clarkston,” if they have jobs at all, work at Walgreens and Costco, but their emotional lives are as empty as a mall at midnight.
It’s tough territory for a playwright. When your interest is in “people on the losing end of American life,” as Hunter recently said, you can easily wind up truffling for tragedy. That, at least, was my disappointed take on “Greater Clements,” his latest play, which opened Monday at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Honorable throughout, and streaked with veins that plunge very deep, it is also too obvious in its dramatic intent to support a nearly three-hour running time or to offer the convincing indictment of American anomie it clearly wishes it could.
The opening gesture is already a bit too pat for that: The citizens of the downtrodden (fictional) town of Clements, a former Idaho mining center whose biggest mine shut down 12 years before the action, have voted to unincorporate. Now its one stoplight will go dark, along with the streetlamps along the main drag. Most of the storefronts there are boarded up anyway, and one of the few that isn’t — home of the mining tour office and museum run by Maggie Bunker — will be soon. She’s closing shop.
In other ways, Maggie (Judith Ivey) has long since done so. A hollow marriage ended around the time the mine shut down; she has hardly tolerated any companionship since, except in the form of short visits from the fatuous sheriff (Andrew Garman) and a busybody old friend (Nina Hellman) who might as well wear a T-shirt reading “plot contrivance.”
Instead, Maggie’s emotional attention has been spent trying to rescue her son, Joe, from the creeping mental illness that long since turned him into a pariah and recently almost destroyed him. Now 27, Joe (Edmund Donovan) lives with Maggie above the museum, trying to be less “weird” but almost resigned to the psychic version of the fate that befell his town: unincorporation.
Fate is one of the problems here: The director Davis McCallum’s production for Lincoln Center Theater is so doomy that the story almost seems rigged.
That’s literally the case with Dane Laffrey’s impressive but awkward (and view-obstructing) bi-level set, which rises and descends like a mine shaft elevator, suggesting that, one way or another, people are going to be crushed. Indeed, among the first things we learn is that Maggie’s father was killed, along with 80 others, in a mine fire in 1972. It doesn’t take a dramaturge to discern what it means when Maggie knocks his pocket watch, which Joe treasures, off its display shelf, cracking its crystal.
Despite that leaden symbol, the mother-son material is very powerful. Ivey is terrific, and terrifically varied, as a woman whose no-nonsense briskness disguises a host of feelings she sees no profit in exploring, including a lifetime’s resentment over caring for difficult men. Ivey is one of those actors who seem to turn their nervous systems over to their roles; when Billy, an old beau from high school, drops by the museum earlier than planned, her hand flies to her hair in an unconscious gesture of belated beautification. And when she mimes cutting herself on shattered glass, you wince.
It’s no small compliment to say that Donovan is her match. Excellent as one of the Costco workers in “Lewiston/Clarkston,” he is even better here as a young man who means well but has “the social intelligence of a 15-year-old.” In a role that could easily tip into incel caricature, Donovan avoids overplaying the quirks, instead making you feel how hard Joe has to swim against the current of his distorted thinking to keep himself afloat. In the play’s most heartbreaking moment, he realizes that all his efforts at self-improvement have brought him only so far: to the understanding of just how limited any further improvement may be.
Maggie realizes it, too, and to the extent “Greater Clements” achieves the tragedy it seeks, it’s not in its attempt to connect Joe’s disintegration to the town’s, or to America’s, but in Maggie’s simple martyrdom to her son and eventually his to her.
Everywhere else, the play’s attempts at complexity undermine it. The arrival of Billy (an underpowered Ken Narasaki), along with his 14-year-old granddaughter, Kel (Haley Sakamoto), opens a second channel of conflict and raises issues — including the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans at the Minidoka War Relocation Center nearby — that Hunter struggles to pound into alignment with the main story. The role of gentrification in the town’s demise is likewise shortchanged in a botched coda when a clueless Californian (Kate MacCluggage) visits the museum.
Not that these themes are unimportant or unfit for dramatization. But the attempt to stuff them all into one play, even a long one, overstrains the story. (Two major plot points in the third act — one involving an overheard conversation and one a broken phone — are not only emotionally unconvincing but mechanical in ways Hunter almost always abjures.) In that sense, perhaps “Greater Clements” isn’t too long but too short: It might be better off as a miniseries, where its net of ideas could unwind more naturally.
As a play, though, it’s like that mine elevator: creaky and skeletal but with intermittent access to wonderful things. If you are looking to cry, as I always am, “Greater Clements” will give you more than one reason to do so.
Through Jan. 19, 2020 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Manhattan; 212-501-3100, lct.org. Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .