Sneaky Snooker Shenanigans Showcased in New Broadway Comedy The Nap
Richard Bean's madcap comedy makes its American debut with Manhattan Theatre Club.
Give credit to Manhattan Theatre Club for having balls: Few Broadway producers would take a chance on a big-cast play about a game that most Americans are only vaguely aware of — much less one daringly named The Nap. The title doesn't actually refer to a mid-matinee siesta, but the direction of the fabric grain on a snooker table (snooker is a more complicated British variation on pool). Shooting with the nap is the path of least resistance, the one any reasonable player would choose. But sometimes it pays to go against the grain, as The Nap is the unlikeliest and funniest comedy on Broadway.
Written by Richard Bean (One Man, Two Guvnors), The Nap takes place around the World Snooker Championships in Sheffield, England (the play made its world premiere in 2016 at Sheffield's Crucible Theatre, where that competition actually takes place). Dylan Spokes (Ben Schnetzer) is a young local competitor. His father (the furtively paternal John Ellison Conlee) also played professionally, but never got far. Dylan has a shot at greatness, but he'll have to balance the conflicting demands of his small-time hustler mother Stella (Johanna Day), his smooth-talking manager Tony (a supercharged Max Gordon Moore), and two agents investigating criminal activity in the game (Heather Lind and Bhavesh Patel, luxuriant in Received Pronunciation). On top of that, a transgender salon owner and local gangster named Waxy Bush (Alexandra Billings) wants Dylan to purposefully lose a frame so she can bet against him and make a mint. It's the least he can do, she argues, after all the financial support she has given to his career.
But Dylan insists that he could never engage in cheating, maintaining a boy scout's devotion to honesty that the people around him find naïve. "This game is a way for working class lads who were sh*t at school to make some money," his father bluntly admonishes him. You can't make money when you play strictly by the rules. But when a man's moral fortitude is as unshakable as Dylan's, there are incentives beyond money that can shake him to his core — as a dangerous criminal like Waxy knows all too well.
Billings endows her character with a lust for viciousness and precise comic timing that leaves a sting long after a joke has been ripped up by its roots, making Waxy Bush easily the most memorable villain to tread the Broadway boards in years. Styled like a Real Housewife of Yorkshire, she's a cross between Don Corleone and Mrs. Malaprop (noting her own implacable hope, she remarks, "I am nothing if not an optometrist").
Bean's playful language soars thanks to a 10-person cast of natural comedians: Carrying no fewer than three purses full of illicit goods, Day slays as Dylan's mom, while Thomas Jay Ryan adds to the hilarity as her pitiable Irish boyfriend. Daniel Sullivan directs this well-orchestrated pandemonium to run right up to the border of implausibility without ever crossing it, making The Nap a very satisfying two hours and 15 minutes of comedy.
The huge performances are enhanced by Kaye Voyce's outrageous costumes: Moore's wild pastel suits, seemingly selected to complement his auburn hair (hair and wigs by Anne Ford-Coates), are particularly fun to track. Lind (whose policewoman character becomes a love interest for Dylan) dons a strappy evening dress in gold and black, making her look like a Russian pop star from the 1980s. But considering she's standing inside a hotel room designed around the theme of Dennis Taylor's 1985 victory over Steve Davis ("the night the modern game was born"), she doesn't stand out as particularly tacky (hilarious set design by David Rockwell).
Rockwell collaborates with lighting designer Justin Townsend and sound designer Lindsay Jones to create the set for the nationally televised games, capturing the exact right mixture of glitz and self-seriousness (the hushed voiceovers of two commentators really drives that mood home). As Dylan, Schnetzer plays against real-life snooker champ Ahmed Aly Elsayed in scenes that feel as exciting as any good sports movie.
Immensely likable, Schnetzer serves as the steady center of gravity for the more ludicrous characters in orbit around him. He is our tenacious hero in a world beset with corruption. Bean has written a raucous, joyous, and cathartic comedy that brilliantly springs from real-life anxiety: specifically, the reasonable suspicion that the world is rigged in favor of the unscrupulously rich and powerful — that to accept their help is to accept a debt that will eventually be repaid with your integrity. Sure, playing against the nap is the tougher row to hoe, but in 2018 it feels like a moral imperative.