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Humble Boy

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Upon entering Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I, you're immediately struck by the set Tim Hatley has constructed, or rather planted, for the new production of Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy. Hatley's garden is one in which the grass, flowers, and other greenery threaten to engulf not only the terrace they surround, but the characters who move within it.

Hatley's design is crowned by a giant beehive, appropriate not because bees play an integral part in the story (they do), but because all swarms need a place to congregate, and the swarms in Jones's play are not insects but words. Of course, if the words in Humble Boy were insects, audience members making the safari-like trek into this almost-jungle wilderness would be well advised to protect themselves from head to toe.

Granted, the words, words, words here are not as plentiful as in Hamlet, though this play has clearly been modeled on Shakespeare's masterwork. Still, each of the characters spends the first act seeking the proper words to articulate even the most basic feelings, while in the second act, no one is able to stop talking, regardless of whose beliefs or emotions they shatter in the process. Yet with all this talking, surprisingly little gets said; the play runs two and a half hours, yet has enough filler to run effectively with less.

Jones piles on the intertwining relationships between the characters, sprinkling some science on top - particularly with the Hamlet role, here named Felix Humble and played by Jared Harris, a theoretical physicist - for good measure. Yet she's no Tom Stoppard - the science isn't treated seriously, used for minor metaphorical connections to situations and emotions that don't (or shouldn't) need them to be clear, rather than making salient points about the story or the character.

Every time Felix starts waxing marginally philosophic about black holes, it feels tacked on. Do theoretical physicists behave no other way? When he's not doing that, he must contend with the black hole of his own life: His mother Flora (Blair Brown) has taken up with longtime acquaintance George Pye (Paul Hecht) soon after his father's death. He also has to deal with his aggressive ex-girlfriend, Rosie (Ana Reeder), as well as a stutter that comes and goes. It's most pronounced when he's saying words that start with "B," get it?

Jones's creativity extends to dramatic situations, too, with Felix and Rosie's steamy reconciliation almost interrupted by Flora and George, or letting the unassuming servant (Mary Beth Hurt, doing as much as she can with very little) add some unfortunate ingredients to the gazpacho she's made to soothe over the civil wars raging around the estate. Director John Caird has staged all these moments the best he can, and Hatley's sets and Paul Pyant's lights make everything look great.

But neither Caird nor the actors have much to work with that's special or exciting; how many creative artists could flourish when forced to compare suicide methods around a dinner table, or share long-held secrets on the slightest, unsubstantiated whim? Brown shines in the last fifteen minutes or so of the play, when Flora can no longer suppress the truths all around her; her performance gains the silky smoothness of the flower petals in the garden, with Flora's newfound conviction and attitude making her bloom just as much.

Of the remaining actors, only Reeder, with the show's most realistically-written character, comes close to matching Brown's work in the last scenes. But she, like the other actors, has it difficult, with a purpose and outcome obscured in the underbrush of excess Jones has provided. There are the roots of a good play in Humble Boy, but the show could certainly benefit from a good pruning.

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Manhattan Theatre Club
Humble Boy
Through July 6
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.581.1212