New York City Theater
"The Oldest Boy"
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
"The Real Thing"
American Airlines Theater
The reality of love in all its forms, its vagueness and inability to be codified, runs through two new productions. Peculiarly, the revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1982 “The Real Thing” is a good play gone sour in the hands of director Sam Gold, while Sarah Ruhl’s latest, “The Oldest Boy,” is a middling work given a smashing production by director Rebecca Taichman.
In Ruhl’s drama, Celia Keenan-Bolger plays the mother of three-year-old Tenzin. Two visiting Buddhists – a monk and a lama -- inform her that her son is a reincarnated Buddhist teacher, a lama who died when the boy was born. They offer to send him to a monastery to prepare him for his sacred role in this life on his long journey towards nirvana.
Should she, can she, give up her beloved son to this noble cause? And, despite being married to a Tibetan Buddhist, albeit one who has renounced his faith, can she accept what one of the monks says: “Your consciousness comes with you when you die.” Tenzin’s essence, they say, belongs to others; thus he is her son in the physical sense only.
Although she studies and understands Buddhism, the mother (she has no name) also believes that early closeness of child and parent will make for the offspring’s well-developed, happy future. Yet, she is told by the clerics, “attachment is not love.”
Of course, Ruhl is talking about various definitions of love, from maternal to eternal. Which will win out – the personal or the worldly? Skeptical abut Tenzin’s sanctity, the mother is astounded when tests reveal the boy’s uncanny ability to choose objects associated with the dead teacher.
With its references to the story of Jesus and the sacrificing Mary, as well as the medieval drama “Everyman,” Ruhl’s play is moving in a personal sense, yet somehow seems shallow. She doesn’t examine the often deleterious effect of organized religion on individuals, preferring to concentrate on the sentimental.
Still, the play stays with you and the production’s technical aspects overcome resistance. Against ritualistic movement and dances by chorographer Burnet O’Hanlon, “The Oldest Boy” is lovely to behold. Via Mimi Lien’s minimalist set, Jophy Weideman painterly lighting and, especially, Anita Yavich’s exquisite costumes, we are transported to an exotic world.
And it is acted with burning sensitivity by Celia Keenan-Bolger as the mother and Ernest Abuba as the voice of the boy (portrayed by a flexible puppet). Under Taichman’s direction, the evening is lovely and moving.
Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” should be moving, also, but isn’t. After all, it’s often touted as this intellectual playwright’s most emotional work. Also one of his most successful (this is its third trip to Broadway), it’s a disquisition on the difference between art and reality, told through a tale of adultery and suspicion.
Henry, a rock ‘n’ roll buff (the cast sings pop excerpts between scenes), is married to actress Charlotte yet having an affair with another actress, Annie. (“To marry one actress is unfortunate,” says Henry in a Wildean epigram, “to marry two is simply asking for it.”) A well-regarded playwright, Henry becomes blocked when forced to face the meaning of love and infidelity.
Whether these are affairs of the heart or merely another “situation,” to be used in Henry’s catalogue of characters, is one of the play’s questions. When his “real” life begins to mirror his artistic one, trouble brews, especially when he can not distinguish one from the other.
These are not shallow characters but fully-fleshed human beings with layers of feelings. That they’re in the theater, where art can be controlled, only points up how difficult it is for them to deal with messy reality. Only when Henry is faced with love in both its harshness and honesty can he free himself and find himself.
As Henry, Ewan McGregor is particularly notable, both charming and troubled. Maggie Gyllenhaal makes a strong Broadway debut as the forthright Annie, while Josh Hamilton reveals how Max’s bravura hides his insecurities. As Charlotte, Cynthia Nixon can let her features literally drip away, creating a character torn between the devil-may-care and self-destructive brittleness.
Director Gold’s production is linear; even the set changes from one location to another are indicated mainly by re-arranging the furniture. It’s all terribly artificial, as artificial as the jokes that fly like intellectual brickbats from the mouths of these brainy people. What’s missing is the realization that humor is a cover-up for pain.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 19, 2014