Thursday, April 16, 2009

To bee or not to bee

Tom O'Keefe and Nancy Carroll in Humble Boy.

It's surprising how quickly artistic winds can change direction. A few weeks ago, I was wondering when, if ever, I was going to see my first hit of the theatrical season. And now I've just seen three in a row - Superheroine Monologues, Picnic, and now Humble Boy at the BCA (presented by the Publick Theater through May 2). None of these productions is perfect, mind you, but all match worthy plays with worthy performances, and each could serve as a fresh and stimulating evening out.

Of the three, Humble Boy is probably the subtlest and most complex in both text and production. Its author, Charlotte Jones, still counts as a newcomer on these shores, and so the show also has an atmosphere of discovery about it. Or maybe re-discovery is the word, since Jones clearly channels Tom Stoppard, and after the woozy metaphysics of Rock'n'Roll, it's good to see that somebody, at least, can do the old boy better than he can do himself these days.

Although it must be noted that Jones doesn't quite make the final leap into her own individual voice that's ultimately required of any playwright. She instead evinces a thorough command of Stoppard's method: a pastiche of classic literary source (in this case Hamlet) with unrelated academic discipline (in this case string theory) in an agreeably witty post-modern setting (in this case, a dysfunctional family coming to terms with the death of its bee-keeping patriarch). Jones's cleverness is reason enough to settle back with pleasure into the dialogue, but for a while she hints, via hairpin turns in perspective and tone, that she has some genuinely original synthesis of this material buzzing under her bonnet. This, alas, proves not to be the case; the author may seem for a time to be cross-pollinating Stoppard and Alan Ayckbourn, but eventually her play does at least one too many about-faces before reaching a slightly unconvincing conclusion. Still, by then we've been tickled by so much literate wit and invention that we're in a pretty forgiving mood.

Of course said mood is largely due to the fact that director Diego Arciniegas neatly negotiates every twist and turn of this strange comi-tragedy (or tragicomedy). And has an ensemble that can keep pace with the playwright. Which takes a fair amount of skill, given that Jones is trying to cram Hamlet into something like a British sex-farce corset. Bumbling astrophysicist Felix (Tom O'Keefe) having returned home for his father's funeral, discovers that his fashion-plate mum, Flora (Stephanie Clayman) has set all of dad's bees loose, and what's more, has been carrying on with the boor next door (Nigel Gore), whom she plans to marry. Shades of Gertrude and Claudius! There's even an Ophelia wandering in this unweeded garden (designed in impressive detail by Dahlia Al-Habieli) in the person of Felix's ex, Rosie (Claire Warden) - although Laertes, Polonius, and the rest of the gang have been replaced by a single, sadly dithering neighbor, Mercy (Nancy Carroll).

Note those names - Flora, Felix (i.e., "Happy"), Mercy; you can tell right away you're in a Play of Ideas. Said ideas include the potential of bee-society as a model of utopia (a British variant of "bumblebee" is "humblebee;" hence Humble Boy); the potential of string theory to reveal a "unified theory of everything"; and, of course, the potential meaning of said "everything." Oh, and sex. Did I mention sex?

Because there's quite a bit of suburban, Ayckbourn-ian ribaldry in Humble Boy, along with some semi-shocking gags around poor Dad's ashes, all of which merely goose along a slow stream of revelations about our hero and his past life. I can't really pretend that everyone's behavior makes sense once all has been revealed, but minute-to-minute the cast generally keeps the characters' actions, however outlandish, believable. O'Keefe brings a befuddled pathos to Felix, who's so stressed his childhood stutter has returned, while Claire Warden brings a knockabout strength to Rosie that helps distract us from questions about her emotional history and choices (she's the least coherent of the lot). Better still are Nigel Gore and Nancy Carroll, who both have field days in their respective roles. Indeed, they're almost too likeable as a result; we feel for them more at the play's conclusion (which does them both a dirty trick) than we think the playwright intends. There's also some gently detailed work from Dafydd Rees as the gardener who's hiding his own secret (which turns out to be yet another parallel to Hamlet). The one slight gap in the cast I think is Stephanie Clayman, who makes a fiercely bumptious egotist of Flora, but somehow never does more than hint at the inner life, beneath her seemingly crass exterior, which could support the play's last reversal. But even without a perfect queen bee, or a perfect ending, Humble Boy still delivers many delicious tastes of intellectual honey.

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