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The Book of Everything

Neil Armfield's terrifically smart and uplifting production at the New Victory is a wonder-filled stage adaptation of a unusual children's book set in 1951 Amsterdam. logo
Matthew Whittet in The Book of Everything
(© Heidrun Lohr)
It's Amsterdam, 1951. Mad dogs and witches run loose on the streets. And, in the aftermath of unimaginable horror, God goes missing. If those facts don't throw you -- or more importantly, your children -- check out The Book of Everything at the New Victory Theater.

This terrifically smart and, yes, uplifting production has been brought to New York by Australian director Neil Armfield, who has helmed Richard Tulloch's wonder-filled stage adaptation of Guus Kuijer's 2004 children's book, which focuses on the diary of an innocent yet unusually precocious nine-year-old boy named Thomas (here played by Matthew Whittet) during a crucial coming-of-age moment for him and his family.

Tulloch and Armfield have done a brilliant job together theatricalizing the story, using eight actors, one musician, and beguilingly simple stagecraft, aided by Kim Carpenter's astonishing set and costume designs that cry out for a picture book version to be made some day of Kuijer's opus, complete with exotic pop-up illustrations. A book flies down onto a table like a graceful bird. Hundreds of green ping-pong balls transform into a plague of frogs. Clapping hands conjure a hailstorm.

Tulloch smoothes down one or two edges of Kuijer's original text -- particularly some occasionally dark Biblical views -- without compromising the integrity of a tale set against the profoundly disturbing backdrop of postwar Europe. (Anne Frank's hiding place is never mentioned, but the fact that it's only two and a half miles away from Thomas's address is not incidental.) The play does retain, as a word of caution, some R-rated words and even adds one or two of its own.

Whittet has an infectious energy and spirit as Thomas, but he has, unfortunately, been directed to play the nine-year-old character with the cloying baby voice that too many adult actors use to portray children. This Baby Snooks approach is wildly out of place in a production that otherwise looks its appreciative young audience straight in the eye.

The remainder of the cast is uniformly perfect, from powerful veteran actors Peter Carroll, Claire Jones, and Deborah Kennedy, as Thomas's parents and aunt, to Alison Bell, Julie Forsyth, and Yael Stone, as three separately fierce women who guide the boy. And an unforgettable John Leary rounds out the cast with a cameo that must be seen to be believed.

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