A palpable buzz fills the auditorium at the start of Charlotte Jones’ “Humble Boy,” and that’s well before audiences discover that its central figure — a panicky, stutter-prone astrophysicist named Felix Humble (Simon Russell Beale) — is plagued by an intermittent humming in his ear. A first glimpse of designer Tim Hatley’s ravishing tiered garden suggests something special, and a starry cast headed by Russell Beale, Diana Rigg and Denis Quilley is impressive even by National Theater standards. What’s gratifying about the evening, however, is that Jones’ play — her first at this address, having already won this year’s Susan Smith Blackburn Award — mostly justifies the extraordinary care and solicitude that director John Caird and a top-drawer production team have lavished upon it, Joe Cutler’s original music included. (Notice the way in which the scraping of a cello here approximates the clangorous buzzing of a bee.) At times, you may resist some clumsy dramaturgy that leaves no metaphor unmined and overworked, but there’s scant resisting the poignancy and heart of an evening whose none-too-humble origins leave no doubt that this play and production have a sizable future in store.
“Humble Boy” has been touted as Jones’ riff on “Hamlet,” which makes sense insofar as the playwright’s husband, Paul Bazely, was the (excellent) Guildenstern to Russell Beale’s recent Danish prince. And the connections certainly exist to be made, from a lovesick son at odds with his newly affianced mother following his father’s sudden death to the second-act presence of a ghost and even a “nunnery” joke. Beyond Beale and Quilley, the exemplary cast includes a third alum of Caird’s “Hamlet” in Cathryn Bradshaw, who cuts a far more robust presence as Felix’s onetime paramour, Rosie Pye, than she did as Russell Beale’s squeaky-voiced Ophelia.
But the fuller comparison has to be with “The Seagull,” another play featuring a preening mother and hapless son locked in a familial dance made up in equal measure of both devotion and despair. Flora Humble (Diana Rigg) is rotting her life away in a lushly appointed Cotswold garden, embittered by her son — in Flora’s view, Felix’s main achievement was to ruin his mother’s figure — and far less invigorated than she first imagines by her apparent romantic savior, Quilley’s George Pye, the coach firm operator who is also Rosie’s father. In thrall to cosmetic surgery (her nose, she likes to put it, hasn’t so much been fixed as “slightly rephrased”), Flora is at odds with a life that landed this would-be model in a house full of scientists, even if her late husband is revealed to have a commemorative empathy that leaves theoretical abstraction in the dust.
In a physical design dominated by a beehive, Flora is clearly the queen bee, a point that gets explicitly made via a reference by the gardener Jim (William Gaunt) to the drones’ “torn-off genitals.” And Rigg — who was some years back repeatedly touted to play Arkadina in a “Seagull” that never took wing — snaps deliciously at the part, her acerbic cool cracking following a revelation-packed lunch in which the Humbles’ tranquil garden itself becomes a hive of activity and angst.
Jones began her career as an actress, so it’s no surprise to find that her writing is enormously generous to performers. All six actors get separate but equal moments to seize the stage, whether it’s an elegantly delivered soliloquy from Quilley that puts one in mind of Yorick or not one but two bravura turns from Marcia Warren, whose kind-faced if clumsy Mercy Lott — a local charity worker — has none of the audience-pandering cuteness that marred this same actress’ work in an earlier Jones play, “In Flame.” (Giving voice to “brief bursts of unutterable sadness,” Mercy has a self-awareness about her sorrow that comes right out of Chekhov.)
Russell Beale, in turn, folds elements of both his National Theater Hamlet and his definitive decade-old Konstantin for the RSC into a newly rending portrayal in which the merest squint speaks volumes about the inconsolable ache of a Cambridge “golden boy” who has gone through life “just missing it,” in Felix’s ruthless self-appraisal. Like Konstantin, Felix flirts with suicide (his preferred implement: a garden hose), but it’s not giving much away to report that he doesn’t succeed. Instead, Jones’ play leaves him at one with the stars and the natural world — the final line marks “Humble Boy’s” most moving appropriation of “Hamlet” — awaiting a state of grace, as played by an actor whose every outing these days seems to land an audience right there.