STOCKBRIDGE — They’re a scruffy and mixed-up bunch, the family at the center of Suzanne Heathcote’s “I Saw My Neighbor on the Train and I Didn’t Even Smile.’’
Frazzled and forlorn Rebecca, played by Keira Naughton, is still mourning the pet dog who died a year ago while she struggles to negotiate the online dating scene. Her brother Jamie (Andrew Rothenberg) has a history of manipulative and selfish behavior, and is about to get married to a woman whose own egocentricity does not augur well for a happy union.
Jamie’s 15-year-old daughter, Sadie, played by Ariana Venturi, has just landed in hot water by making a sexually explicit cellphone video with a couple of high school football players. Grandmother Daphne (Linda Gehringer), the gruffest imaginable matriarch, appears to be more interested in her electronic cigarettes than in any of them.
All in all, this combative clan presents a multigenerational portrait in dysfunction — and they are mighty invigorating company in this razor-sharp, thoroughly engrossing world premiere. Directed with laser focus by Jackson Gay, “I Saw My Neighbor on the Train and I Didn’t Even Smile’’ is a co-production of Berkshire Theatre Group and New Neighborhood, a just-created theater and television company.
The tone of Heathcote’s play ranges from darkly funny to dead-
serious. A British playwright now based in Los Angeles, Heathcote has an Annie Baker-like gift for the rhythms of stop-and-start dialogue and a Baker-like empathy for the kind of loneliness that the presence of other people cannot assuage. (Even, or in this case especially, when you happen to be related to those other people.)
Consider these poignant musings by Naughton’s Rebecca, discussing her anemic love life with Sadie: “I mean there are all these. People. Alone. I see them all the time. Reading books and eating sandwiches and. I don’t understand when there are so many of us feeling this. Aching in this. Why don’t we all just. Why are we all going through it on our own?’’
Sadie replies: “I guess. Because lonely people don’t want other lonely people.’’
Rebecca has been pressured by Jamie into allowing Sadie to temporarily live with her in her Illinois apartment because his bride-to-be has no use for the girl. Cast adrift, Venturi’s Sadie wears a bored, above-it-all sneer, her faraway gaze suggesting she’s trying to absent herself from any room or situation she is in. But the beauty of Venturi’s performance, one of the best I’ve seen all year, is the quality of fierce self-awareness she brings to the character and the way she eventually reveals just how raw Sadie’s nerve endings actually are.
Sadie’s vulnerability becomes clear, in different ways, when she drifts into a disastrous pot-smoking encounter with a guy Rebecca has met on an online dating site (played by Adam O’Byrne) and when she makes a kind of connection with a geeky, socially awkward math whiz named Eric (Adam Langdon).
The acting is strong across the board. Naughton, who directed her father, James, in Erik Tarloff’s “Cedars’’ last summer at Berkshire Theatre Group, does an exceptional job capturing the pain, anger, sadness, and longing beneath Rebecca’s goofy-loser persona. Gehringer, who gets many of the play’s laughs with caustic one-liners, is equally deft in finding the layer of humanity beneath Daphne’s crusty exterior.
Naughton, Gehringer, Venturi, and O’Byrne are all members of New Neighborhood, as are director Gay and several other members of the artistic team. It was a bold and astute choice by the established Berkshire Theatre Group to team up with the fledgling company, which launched only a few months ago and is making its debut with “I Saw My Neighbor. . .’’
Founded by what it describes as “a collective of artists scattered across the country,’’ and puckishly proclaiming a “sincerity and authenticity [that] are so combustible, it cannot be housed under one roof for too long without doing severe structural damage,’’ New Neighborhood clearly possesses a sense of humor to go along with its adventurous aesthetic — two qualities that are always welcome in the theatrical neighborhood.
I SAW MY NEIGHBOR ON THE TRAIN AND I DIDN’T EVEN SMILE
Play by Suzanne Heathcote
Directed by Jackson Gay
Composer, Ryan Kattner. Set and lights, Paul Whitaker. Costumes, Jessica Ford. Sound, Broken Chord.
Projections, Nicholas Hussong.
Presented by Berkshire Theatre Group
and New Neighborhood
At: Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, through Aug. 15
Tickets $50, 413-997-4444, www.berkshiretheatregroup.org