A layered ‘terrible things’ at the Huntington
Chances are the planet is full of people who wish they could rewrite an episode from their past or secure forgiveness from someone they've wronged along the way.
But that can be a tricky business, as a bookstore proprietor and her new employee discover in "after all the terrible things I do,'' a trenchant, multilayered drama by A. Rey Pamatmat, directed by Peter DuBois with an eye and ear for the play's nuances.
Pamatmat veers toward the overly schematic and self-consciously literary at times as he traces the shared history between two people who at first seem to be complete strangers. But the virtues of "terrible things'' outweigh its flaws. Pamatmat finds an intriguing new angle from which to dramatize a timely issue — the bullying of gay kids — and an absorbing, psychologically astute way to explore the corrosive nature of guilt. Provocatively, the playwright suggests that the harmful long-term consequences of bullying can sometimes flow in more than one direction.
One of the strengths of "terrible things'' is the light it sheds on what can be revealed, or concealed, by the stories we tell — or write — about our lives.
All in all, "terrible things,'' whose title is drawn from a Frank O'Hara poem, confirms that Pamatmat warrants the copious attention being paid to him in Boston at the moment. (Along with "terrible things,'' which is at the Wimberly Theatre in the Cal-derwood Pavilion, Company One Theatre's production of Pamatmat's "Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them'' is running at the Calderwood's Deane Hall.)
Tina Chilip portrays Linda, a Philippines-born immigrant in her late 40s who operates a cozy independent bookstore (handsomely designed by Clint Ramos) in an unnamed Midwestern community. Zachary Booth plays Daniel, an aspiring novelist in his 20s who has returned to his hometown and is applying for a job at the bookstore.
Attired in a suit, a leather document case by his side, Daniel spends the moments before he meets Linda silently mouthing his answers to her prospective questions. Everything about him suggests a guy trying just a bit too hard. Soon, though, it's Linda who seems to be trying too hard: The awkward formality of their interactions during the interview takes a curious turn once it's over, when her attitude toward Daniel morphs into a near-maternal solicitude.
He takes umbrage when her tips for future job interviews include the suggestion that he not reveal that he is gay, as he did with her. Taking his hand, she tells him: "There are prejudiced — not just prejudiced . . . there are hateful people out there who would hurt you. You could get hurt. And I don't want you to get hurt, honey. You need to be careful.''
By the second scene, Daniel has been working at the bookstore for a month, and there is an easy familiarity to the interactions between him and Linda, though she's still prone to verbal missteps such as calling heterosexuals "regular people.'' Daniel begins to share with Linda the details of a story he's writing about two guys who begin a relationship years after they attended school together.
As their conversation moves to a deeper level — this is a talky play — it appears that Linda and Daniel are opening up to each other. But are they both telling the full story? Is it possible they are damaged souls who might eventually help each other? No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that Pamatmat deftly upends any lazy assumptions we might bring to this scenario.
Chilip, a graduate of the Brown University/Trinity Rep MFA acting program who has appeared off Broadway in David Henry Hwang's "Golden Child,'' brings intricate shadings to her portrait of Linda, a character who at first seems to be an open book. Booth, who appeared in the 2013 Broadway revival of Terence Rattigan's "The Winslow Boy,'' is equally impressive as Daniel. He conveys a sense of the complex forces churning beneath Daniel's boyish surface.
Subtle yet forceful, their portrayals are in keeping with the implicit suggestion in "terrible things'' that while the past can't be outrun, it can perhaps be understood — cold comfort though that may prove to be.
AFTER ALL THE TERRIBLE THINGS I DO
Play by A. Rey Pamatmat
Directed by Peter DuBois
Set and costumes, Clint Ramos. Sound, M.L. Dogg.
Lights, Lap Chi Chu.
Huntington Theatre Company
At: Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion,
Boston Center for the Arts,
through June 21
Tickets: 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org