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Namaste Man

Andrew Weems' autobiographical solo piece is well-acted but underdeveloped. logo
Andrew Weems in Namaste Man
(© Chris Bennion)
Contrary to what your yoga teacher may have told you, namaste doesn't necessarily mean, "I greet the god within you." As defined in Andrew Weems' new solo piece Namaste Man, getting its world premiere at the Intiman Theatre under the direction of 2008 Tony Award nominee Bartlett Sher, it's more like aloha: a term that means both hello and goodbye. And therein lies the trouble with this uneven work. In spite of fine acting by Weems, Namaste Man never quite arrives.

As the son of a State Department official, the fortysomething Weems has spent a lifetime saying hello and goodbye. In the 1970s, his family lived for several years in Kathmandu. He draws on that experience for much of the play, which alternates between scenes from his boyhood years in Nepal and a dispiriting portrait of his current life as a New York actor.

Weems is a versatile performer and gifted mimic who, without so much as a change of costume, fills the stage with a vivid cast of characters: The legless doorman who guards the local hashish den; a stoned, disheveled girl who shows up on the family doorstep at Thanksgiving; a honey-voiced Anglo-Indian theater impresario; and -- most memorably -- Weems' enigmatic mother, whom the kids call Mabel.

Namaste Man is strongest when Weems recreates a child's-eye view of his mismatched parents: a can-do engineer dad paired with a distracted mom who re-reads paperback mysteries and yearns sadly for "something else." In one moving portrait, Weems watches as Mabel, serenaded by a Nat King Cole record, sits marooned in the middle of the family living room and slowly cuts off most of her hair.

Weems mines the Nepal years for other sharply-wrought scenes of domestic life, but as the play jumps to the present, the piece becomes muddled and unconvincing. There are long, dull stretches in which it's not quite clear where we are; Trekking in the Himalayas? Lost in Kathmandu? New York? Sher does his best to prop up the sagging plot by keeping Weems in almost perpetual motion, but it's like being caught in a revolving door.

Brimming with Nepalese touches, Elizabeth Caitlin Ward's set is also more at home with the trappings of Weems' boyhood -- rustic altars, a football poster, miniature Buddha figurines, the looming Himalayas, and a huge collection of candles flickering in glass votives on the floor. Random objects -- was that a birdhouse? -- occasionally descend to hover over the stage, and snow falls prettily on the mountains that Weems climbed on a long-ago field trip.

Greg Sullivan's lighting design, on the other hand, avoids any and all theatrical flourishes, including blackouts between scenes. This lack of punctuation notably flattens the action -- and douses the candlelight effect -- as Weems bobs and weaves about the set, tracked by a muted spotlight. Each time he utters the final line of a scene, he's left standing out there in the light to pause, grin, turn to walk a few steps away, then back around to face us and plunge into the next scene. This evident interest in keeping things "real" (Weems also delivers the pre-show announcement and sets a few last-minute props), robs the show of some much-needed punch.

If Weems pens another play that delves more deeply into the story of his parents and their life together, I'll be the first in line for tickets. As it is, Namaste Man feels like an undercooked version of the play that's waiting to emerge.

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