Local playwright Lauren Gunderson has a knack for making the problems of flibbertigibbets look both loathsomely silly and cosmically weighty. In her acclaimed Exit, Pursued by a Bear, which premiered at Crowded Fire in 2011, she made her audience believe that the central character, Nan, a Southern housewife who's obsessed with Jimmy Carter, could express herself to her husband only by staging a play. Now, with Toil and Trouble, which recently opened at the Impact Theatre under the direction of Josh Costello, Gunderson takes on an even less awe-inspiring demographic: over-educated and underemployed young San Franciscans.
Adam (Mike Delaney), Matt (Will Hand), and Beth (Jeanette Penley) know that they're "unlovable," but that doesn't stop them from feeling under appreciated for, if not any actual contributions to the world, their credentials and their potential. They eat takeout and look things up on the Internet in their Mission District apartment, which is aptly furnished with an IKEA coffee table and velour furniture (the scenic design is by Anne Kendall). Adam frequently mentions his legion of "angel investors," aka his "Nana;" Matt sublimates his copious anxiety into flipping through his weekly newspaper (huzzah!); and Beth, the only gainfully employed member of the trio, has only one emotion: ruthless ambition.
That's where the title comes in. Gunderson's play is inspired by Macbeth, but rather than solving their problems by killing a king, Adam proposes the three take over a small South American island that's populated by the llama-like miniature vicuna and sell their prized wool. As Beth puts it, "You're proposing a coup d'etat instead of a temp job." Yet if Gunderson's flaccid trio don't look much like Medieval Scottish nobility, they still borrow a few elements from Shakespeare's bloodiest tragedy: Suspicious rivals competing for control, a power-hungry woman dominating and spurring the less enthusiastic man in her life, the increasingly unconvincing mantra that the barbarism is all for the best, and even, jarringly, a smattering of interpolated Shakespeare.
That Toil and Trouble also incorporates the Giants' World Series victory (Gunderson evidently forecasts as accurately as Macbeth's three weird sisters) doesn't help its already schizophrenic plot. Especially in the play's second half, practically every line layers on a new machination or changes the scene's stakes -- resumes, relationships, and murders all turn out to be of dubious authenticity -- as if Gunderson didn't trust her basic idea to be interesting on its own.
Her writing is at once more comfortable and cracklier when she simply lets her characters be who they are, unencumbered by contrivance. Costello's game ensemble makes much out of these more character-driven moments: Early on, after Adam confesses the blue collar job he's taken to pay the rent, he makes, through popping eyes and stifled gestures, a pause into an entire conversation. Later on, the cast's charged energy smooths out many of the bumps in the writing, particularly when coupled with Costello's lively staging. He makes the beat-up furniture into small islands in a stormy sea; the wannabe yuppies cling to the set pieces as if falling off might make them confront their own unmet expectations.
Frivolous and unlikable as Gunderson's characters can be, they might well be the Lords and Lady Macbeths of their generation. In a world of rigid inequalities, they did everything right, but they're still on the bottom. They don't have skills or experience, but they have the most human of abilities: to desire, to hurt, and to be hurt. Good thing they're not very strong in those abilities, letting us chuckle at them along the way.
Toil and Trouble continues through Dec. 8 at La Val's Subterranean, 1834 Euclid (at Hearst), Berkeley. Admission is $10-$20.