By Stanford Friedman

If you think you detect a note of irony in the title of Samuel D. Hunter’s 2010 effort, A Bright New Boise, you would be correct. This decidedly dark drama chronicles the lives of five emotionally damaged Idahoans who spend their days working at a Hobby Lobby art supply store and their nights pensively seeking some sort of salvation from their angst-ridden existence. The work also serves as a think piece on the schism between religious conviction and American capitalism, with the specter of the Second Coming hanging over the company break room. The play does not so much move forward as dwell in the past, or navel-gaze while standing in place. Secrets from each of the character’s past are revealed amid sermonizing on faith, forgiveness, victimization and even literature. It is at times compelling but at other times preachy. And, as directed by Oliver Butler, the slow pace of the proceedings gives us plenty of time to fall out of love with what we’re watching.

The actors in the secondary roles have the better time of it. Eva Kaminsky as the store manager, Pauline, is a welcome comic presence, perpetually frustrated with the staff under her purview, having to follow the company line of conflict resolution when you know she’d rather just give her underlings a swift kick. She holds fast to the idea that beliefs are irrelevant, and what matters are “real things” like “a country so beautiful that it can support a chain of big box retail stores.”

Anna Baryshnikov is pleasingly quirky as Anna, the yin to Pauline’s yang. A sweet, but incompetent employee, her long list of jobs from which she’s been fired includes three different McDonald’s, “the Super Walmart and the regular Walmart.”  She spends her evenings reading in the Hobby Lobby break room because her home life, with an apparently brutal father, is a worse alternative.

Angus O’Brien’s Leroy is a mad at everything artist wannabe whose creations include profane t-shirts. He’s the play’s angry catalyst, setting off various fireworks without serving up much of a flesh and blood character. 

Ignacio Diaz-Silverio, who is in his 20’s, portrays the high school student, Alex, with all the existential dread and loner creepiness of a broken man in his 40’s. “Hell is all around,” is his creed. He’s a walking cry for help that demands our sympathy, but he’s so distant that it becomes all too easy to ignore that demand.

In the pivotal role of Will, Peter Mark Kendall seems more devious than devout. He has a problematic relationship with each of his co-workers, and an even more complex relationship with his god. A dutiful Christian who belonged to a sketchy evangelical church in upstate Idaho, he has come to Boise to perhaps find balance in his life, or maybe just wait out the end of days and its promise of a better afterlife. His getting hired at the Hobby Lobby means being less than truthful with Pauline, finding some comfort with Anna who is impressed with his blog writing skills, scuffling with Leroy, each suspicious of the other, and entering a fractious relationship with Alex that will further damage them both. 

With a play like this, that points backwards, sticking the ending is a tough trick and Hunter takes a risk that falls short. Unlike his excellent work from last year, A Case for the Existence of God, which concludes with a daring and satisfying leap into the future, Boise ends with a dire, dreary and hope shattering jump into the past. A Case… also benefited from its setting, an impossibly cramped cubicle from whence its characters rarely escaped. Designer Wilson Chin’s  break room, by contrast, while realistic down to its faulty microwave oven, is too spacious by half, allowing its sad inhabitants a safe physical distance when a dangerous emotional closeness is what’s called for.

A Bright New Boise – By Samuel D. Hunter, directed by Oliver Butler.

WITH:  Anna Baryshnikov (Anna), Ignacio Diaz-Silverio (Alex), Eva Kaminsky (Pauline), Peter Mark Kendall (Will), and Angus O’Brien (Leroy). 

Wilson Chin (Scenic Design), April M. Hickman (Costume Design), Jen Schriever (Lighting Design), Christopher Darbassie (Sound Design) and Stefania Bulbarella (Projection and Video Design).Signature Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W 42nd St., Through March 12. Running time: 100 minutes