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Blair Brown and Jared Harris in Humble Boy
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
To be or not to be? That is the question Charlotte Jones asks and for which she suggests hopeful answers in the touching, ultimately mesmerizing Humble Boy, a Chekhovian spin on Shakespeare's Hamlet, now on view at Manhattan Theatre Club Stage 1.

Call the comedy-drama Shake-hovian. In it, Felix Humble (Jared Harris), a theoretical physicist preoccupied with the theory of everything, returns to the Cotswolds for his father's funeral. Once he's arrived home and is roaming the lush English garden where his schoolteacher father raised bees, he discovers that his mother, Flora (Blair Brown), has emptied the resident hive; not only that, she's thinking about marrying a businessman called George Pye (Paul Hecht). As it happens, the two men have little mutual admiration: Felix, who has resumed his childhood habit of stuttering now that he's on his mother's property, believes that George isn't half the man his father was, and George, thick-skinned and practical, is protective of his daughter, Rosie (Ana Reeder), whom Felix romanced and abandoned seven years earlier.

While Felix sulks and taunts both Flora and George and gives in to Rosie's renewed sexual advances, he also has the occasional chat with Jim (Bernie McInerney), a gardener whom, initially, he alone sees tending the high grass, roses, and poppies. Also coming and going with more wounded self-esteem than she can bear is family hanger-on Mercy Lott (Mary Beth Hurt), a woman who wants to smooth everyone's rattled nerves but only succeeds in rattling them further.

A whopping part of the play's enjoyment is, of course, sighting and citing the allusions to the Bard's tragedy. Felix, mourning his father and resenting his mother, is Hamlet, while gardener Jim stands in for Hamlet's ghost. The vain Flora is Gertrude and the bull-headed George is Claudius. Rosie, though steady on her pins and talking lovingly of a 7-year-old daughter she's raising, is Ophelia. Mercy, dispensing bromides, seems to be the Polonius figure -- but, when Felix accuses her of being sent as his mother's spy, she also subs for the snooping Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Wily as Jones is about establishing cross-references, she's also wise enough not to be slavish about them. She avoids setting out scene-for-scene parallels, preferring to drop the occasional Hamlet aside into her script. For instance, she includes a variation on the "to be or not to be" soliloquy. In Felix's consideration of suicide, he says, sort of Hamlet-like: "Well, in an ideal world, I'd like to jump through a black hole...You get to pass through the event horizon and down into the state of singularity. The point where all mathematical equations break down and you break up into a thousand million particles. I think that would be quite satisfying." Forsooth, it's an amusing update of the famous monologue.

The "to be or not to be" rumination is what inspired Jones to write her admirable play. Making the observation that Hamlet is as relevant to today's world as it was to Shakespeare's because the dilemma of being is forever pertinent, Jones finds a number of droll ways to pun on the verb "be." There are the bees who continue to inhabit the garden even though Flora thought she'd rid herself of them. There are the noises Felix hears buzzing in his head as if his brain were a bee-loud glade. (The phrase "bee-loud glade" from Yeats's "Lake Isle of Inisfree" is invoked.) And there is Felix's repeated stuttering on the consonant "b." His inability to get that sound out is symbolic of his inability to recognize his compulsive theorizing as evasive -- or, as Rosie says shortly after informing Felix that he's the father of her daughter Felicity, "I am offering you the chance to be. Just to be."

Paul Hecht and Blair Brown in Humble Boy
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Detailing Jones's scheme makes it sound far more pat and blatant than it is. Her work is lovely, all the more so because she sees such latent goodness in her characters. While, on one hand, she takes Felix to task for too often losing himself in the poetry of compulsive scientific pursuit, she also chastises Flora and George for their insistence on pragmatic behavior and their concomitant refusal to imagine the world that shimmers beneath the surface of things. Jones accomplishes all of this deftly. Flora, for example, has lost her sense of smell since her husband died; moreover, her vanity is such that, although she is recovering from rhinoplasty as the play begins, she later exclaims: "I haven't had a nose job. I have had my nose rephrased. That is all." And there are many sly jokes of the play, such as what happens to the small ceramic pot in which the late Mr. Humble's ashes reside.

Because Jones has crafted Humble Boy with all the skill and care of Schubert composing a quintet, and because her faith in man's eventual humanity to man is so strong, theatergoers who find themselves falling in love with her conciliatory vision may well overlook the play's flaws. For one thing, somewhere in Jones's gentle upbraiding of Felix lurks the suggestion that scientific pursuit inherently devalues everyday life, that pursuing the theory of everything can easily result in the appreciation of nothing, but this accusation doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Flora's change of heart as the play closes is more forced than earned; there's no need for her to suffer Gertrude's fate, but her rapid thaw is excessive.

Humble Boy was a success two years ago at London's Royal National Theatre, directed by John Caird; Paul Pyant did the lighting, Christopher Shutt did the bee-loud sound design, Joe Cutler dreamed up the incidental music, and Tim Hartley did the sets and costumes. The powers that be at MTC have been smart enough to keep that creative team intact. (FYI: The Royal National's Cottesloe stage configuration for the Jones production was narrow and high; at the Manhattan Theatre Club the stage is broad and low but, although Hatley had to revise his work for the new space, it remains breathtaking.)

Caird extracts intelligent performances from the cast. (Elizabeth Smith is credited as dialect coach.) Harris's shambolic Felix and Reeder's shimmying Rosie are assured, nuanced characterizations, and McInerney hits a strong note in his one-note role. As for Brown and Hecht, they get better and better as Jones slowly allows Flora and George to reveal their vulnerability. Hurt, too obviously a sad sack in her earlier scenes and asked to wear a truly bizarre outfit in a later one, eventually has one of those worm-turns moments that rightly gets much applause. By the time Pyant's lights fade for the last time in a moment of genuine enchantment, it's clear that everyone connected with Humble Boy has done the play proud.

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