It’s a strange thing, but there are certain plays we warm to more in retrospect. There has to be something there in the first place, of course, something fine. And then what we’ve seen might take us by surprise and refuse to leave us. Perhaps it’s one of the characters or a stage picture-the atmosphere of what we’ve seen-that lingers mysteriously. All we can say is the experience now seems richer and complete, the apparent flaws forgiven. The play has grown on us.
That’s the happy effect the strange, lovely and gentle Humble Boy had on me. Its young British playwright, Charlotte Jones, has got so much talent, she almost doesn’t know what to do with it. Her play is rich in ideas and, like its unruly, beckoning English garden, might easily envelop you. It was only afterward that the dramatist’s melancholy yearning for understanding in the chaos crept up on me. You must see this unusual play, if you can. It will enter your system.
Ms. Jones is a delightful writer making a very welcome U.S. debut in John Caird’s first-rate production at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Humble Boy comes to us via the National in London and then acclaim in the West End, as most things do, but it has thus far received a chilly critical reception from some here. Whimsy is an English specialty, and the play is almost too English in the pleasure it takes in such irresistible things as good and bad puns, enchanted gardens, floppy romantic idylls, Shakespeare, midsummer madness, erudite ghosts, eccentric neighbors, inconvenient funerals, farcical lunch parties, nose jobs, dominating m-m-mothers, astrophysics and the mating habits of bumblebees.
Do not be troubled by this, however. It never troubled Tom Stoppard. Ms. Jones’ easeful, articulate ambition and wit inevitably recall Mr. Stoppard’s. You would go a long way, however-and so would Mr. Stoppard-to hear Ms. Jones’ immortal line, “Exit pursued by a bee.” It’s no sillier, of course, than Shakespeare’s “Exit pursued by a bear.” It’s actually an improvement. (Bees pursue you more than bears, I happen to know.)
You see the effect Ms. Jones has on us? She makes us lightheaded, tossing her abundant ideas and jokes away like poppy seeds in the wind. (Or, as the horticulturists say, the seed of papaver dubium .) The seductiveness of Tim Hatley’s onstage garden propels the dramatist’s bizarre course with its hidden grassy pathways and giant beehive plonked in the distant, messy meadow as if it were some extraterrestrial landing craft that might suddenly glow and take off.
The father of the house, a modest biologist and keen beekeeper, has suddenly died, and his son has returned home to the English countryside for his funeral. Felix Humble (played most sympathetically by the excellent Jared Harris) adored his father and is like a displaced nut searching for the music of the spheres. He’s about 35, a Cambridge astrophysicist and an eternal child who loathes his mother. The strain of the visit at first brings on his childhood stammer, particularly with words beginning with B, as in “b-b-bee,” “Big Bang,” “brave” and “behave.” Felix is the self-hating Hamlet-ish neurotic dreamer and agitated poet who’s longing for the secret to everything in “the jittery, frenzied world” where nothing ever connects.
“I can’t hold all the notes, all the variables, all the harmonies in my head,” he announces at one point in mental agony. “But one day, soon, I hope, I’ll have it, M-theory, the mother of all theories, a unified field theory. The theory of everything. And once I’ve done that-I’ll be able to rest.”
His hated, glamorous mother, Flora (Blair Brown, who’s imperiously, exactly right), has a different M-theory. She believes she was unlucky in life to be married to a biologist and give birth to a physicist. Flora isn’t the grieving widow in weeds, more the narcissist with a recent nose job who’s been having an affair for years with her coarse neighbor, George Pye. “I’ve got bugger-all taste,” he announces blithely to one and all, and that’s certainly true.
At one amusingly low point, George unzips his trousers to take a leak all over the garden before our astonished eyes. Now, exactly how Paul Hecht, the excellent actor playing him, manages to pee on cue-at what I understand from scholarly research will be every performance, including matinees-must rank as a Stanislavskian achievement of the highest order (or one of the great deceptions). Mr. Hecht is in good company, by the way. The late, lamented Patrick Magee, a choleric, near-great actor for many years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, was famous for relieving himself onstage at any given opportunity. He could be Cornwall talking to King Lear and he’d suddenly be having a wee-wee in a corner. We all used to wait for it to happen. He never let us down.
Be that as it may, I’m not sure what Flora is doing with George, other than satisfying her need for a lapdog and marginally escaping boredom. She’s a cruel and witty woman. Discussing the best methods of suicide, she announces that she’d put her head in the gas oven. “Anything is preferable to cleaning in it,” she adds grandly. Discussing children with her doting, dotty neighbor, Mercy (played very amusingly by Mary Beth Hurt), she comes out with: “I only had one viable fallopian tube, and that had to be blown through. After Felix was born, I decided to rest on my laurels. It’s a funny thing, realizing that you are no longer the heroine of your own life.”
Timid, sweet, abused Mercy explains that she’s taking a herbal remedy for people who soldier on in the face of complete hopelessness. She has a meltdown while reciting grace before lunch. In the midst of all this, there’s a mysterious gardener (Bernie McInerny) who drifts in and out of the action like a visiting horticultural sage, and there’s tarty Rosie, an English rose, sort of. Rosie Pye (Ana Reeder) is the daughter of George. She was Felix’s lover seven years ago. Rosie could save him. She has a 7-year-old daughter ….
There’s a lot to take in, though Shakespeare’s romances have their complex cosmic coincidences and improbable happy endings. I thought Ms. Jones let her play get away from her by drifting into more surefire Alan Ayckbourn territory over the gazpacho in Act II. But even here the young dramatist reveals a sure touch for English farce, no minor art form.
But we remember melancholic beautiful things more than the laughter. The close of the play is touching and elegiac, reaching a tentative reconciliation between family members who never achieved grace and happiness in a previous life.
“I release my father to space,” says Felix, scattering the ashes of his beloved father to the wind. “To the limitless quiet of space. To fly in unending silence. Through a black hole. Past the event horizon. To the state of singularity. Dust to immortal dust. And out and on and beyond. To a new universe. A parallel world.”
“A better place,” Flora says.
“The land of milk and honey,” adds the son.