As the title character in the new play Hometown Boy learns, you can go home again. But sometimes you shouldn’t.
The secrets that lie at the center of the world premiere drama, onstage at Actor’s Express through November 28, are deceptively hidden within the early dialogue. As they come out, they threaten to split apart several family homes in a small Georgia town, and the production manifests that literally with a lot of impressive scenic design.
When audience members enter the theater, they are confronted with Walter’s house, a spectacular mess. Your eyes go from detail to detail in a living room full of clutter, old magazines, mouse traps and strewn clothing. To the right, the kitchen is even worse, a pile of dishes left to fester in the sink. It’s an unpleasant, claustrophobic space, even before characters enter the scene to crowd it further. Luckily, scenic designers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay have left the smell of the room to the imagination.
From the looks of the stage, we’re about to watch the recovery of this house, a transformation that will turn this hoarder’s space into something more comfortable and livable. Our heroes James (Ryan Vo) and Becks (Michelle Pokopac) arrive on the scene, luggage in tow, but there’s no one to greet them. It’s James’ first time visiting his childhood home in a decade, and the door is locked. Once James finds his own way inside, the squalor shocks him.
James is essentially in town to do a welfare check on his estranged father Walter (Glenn Kubota), who has begun to show signs of dementia so severe and jarring that neighbors have begun to gossip. And James and Becks, a deliciously sarcastic yet warm young woman, are here to save the day.
Hometown Boy deceives the audience from the outset. This looks like a familiar story, 90 minutes of dysfunction giving way to connection, told from the specific perspective of an Asian-American family in the South. Buried in playwright Keiko Green‘s dialogue, though, are hints that this will not follow the expected beats.
Walter seems too nice. James seems too distant and distracted, irritated at his girlfriend. Becks seems more connected to an old man that she just met than she does to her lover, who seems reluctant to give her any information about the situation he’s thrown her into. Eventually, he begrudgingly reveals that a scandal involving Walter and the mayor’s daughter led to James and his mom leaving town.
Becks, the de facto caregiver, keeps making runs to the store or going outside for cigarette breaks. And Walter, who hasn’t seen James in a decade, seems intent on keeping his son at the house. But stormy weather is coming, and these three people refuse to be trapped together.
The biggest trick of this story is that, despite early appearances, this does not play out in one room. Dialogue comes fast and funny at first, building from tension to release like a pressure cooker. And after one horrible argument, the play splits open. And the impressive set, which seemed like an impenetrable wall of mess, splits open right along with it.
Director Rebecca Wear’s handling of the material for the first portion of the play is deft.
Pokopac steals scenes because her character is a lighter wit and a refreshing voice amid all the dark silences between James and Walter. Kubota’s work, a mix of his character’s dementia and defensiveness, is subtler, allowing Walter’s kindness to overshadow any of the sadder elements of his history, including his abandonment of his family.
Vo portrays his upstanding law student character as more of an enigma intentionally while Hometown Boy is confined to the house. Once that premise shatters and James goes out into the world to confront old demons, Vo gets layers to play, secrets to reveal. And the play comes more alive then, too.
A scene at a bar between Vo and Chris Kayser, playing a face-value charming politician named Phil, has a sinister undercurrent. Daniel Parvis portrays a bartender named Collin as an experienced, wiser man who refuses to give in to James’ childish antagonism, triggers and insults.
Allison Dayne, portraying James’ old schoolteacher, gives a breakthrough performance that changes the tide of the whole play. A writer and performer from the Atlanta Fringe Festival, Dayne makes her Actor’s Express debut here, and she has limited stage time to play through a massive range of emotions as she and Vo’s characters have a conversation during the best scene in the play. She is funny, romantic, terrified, unstable and guilty, often all at once.
Kayser’s work opposite Pokopac and Kubota also crackles with chemistry as his character’s veneer begins to slip.
The production does have some issues that detract from the play’s power. Scenes that should play as violent, as choreographed by Kristen Storla, are slowed down, which minimizes the tension and the impact the audience experiences. Some characters are supposed to come unhinged, but it doesn’t play that way.
All in all, Hometown Boy is a treat, a story that will take audiences to places they never expected.
(Actor’s Express Covid protocols require masks to be worn and proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test administered within 48 hours of the performance.)
Benjamin Carr is an arts journalist and critic who has contributed to ArtsATL since 2019. His plays have been produced at The Vineyard Theatre in Manhattan, as part of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival, and the Center for Puppetry Arts. His first novel, Impacted, was published by The Story Plant in 2021.