The massive tufts of long grass that adorn Tim Hatley’s spectacular set for “Humble Boy” look so inviting, you’re tempted to run onstage, flop down and drink in that unmistakable aroma of spring. The roses interspersed among the greenery look equally pungent and fresh. But the drama that blossoms amid all this dazzling flora doesn’t seem to have sprung from natural sources. Charlotte Jones’ play is literate, cunningly crafted and sometimes savagely funny, but it feels unmistakably artificial, as if assembled from a very expensive playwriting kit. British newcomer Jones, a former actress, has clearly studied her masters — she majored in Tom Stoppard and minored in Alan Ayckbourn. But her literary game-playing is more exhibitionist than evocative, and the domestic comedy about family secrets at the play’s core is sometimes shakily grounded in emotional truth.
Manhattan Theater Club has given the play a first-class production that is essentially the equal of the play’s initial staging at London’s National Theater. John Caird ably repeats his directing chores. Replacing the heady duo of Simon Russell Beale and Diana Rigg, who created the roles of Felix and Flora Humble, a son and mother at emotional loggerheads following the death of the pater, are the impeccable Jared Harris and Blair Brown. Mary Beth Hurt is a luxurious treat as Flora’s cowed, dotty hanger-on Mercy. Save for the wandering accent of Ana Reeder, who plays Felix’s onetime paramour, the mixed-nationality cast does well by the play’s crisply articulate language and middle-class British milieu.
Felix has returned to the family home to attend his father’s funeral. A Cambridge don specializing in theoretical physics, Felix does not specialize in interpersonal communication or personal hygiene. A “shambolic” figure, as his mother describes him with typical ruthlessness, he has a pronounced stutter, a generally befogged demeanor and a smoldering sense of grievance toward his mother — all of which are expertly rendered by Harris, who walks through the early scenes in a convincing daze.
The nominal reason for Felix’s resentment is Flora’s quick removal from the backyard of the bee colony that was his father’s passion. Dad was a mere biology teacher but dreamed of glory through an entomological discovery. The acid-tongued Flora, who was lying upstairs nursing a new nose when her husband dropped dead in the garden, seems more disgusted by Felix’s inexpert attempt at eulogy than her husband’s death — another cause for her son’s bitterness. And we soon learn the reason for her apparent indifference: She’s been carrying on with the next-door neighbor, George Pye (an expertly boorish Paul Hecht), for some years. He soon begins pressing for a quick marriage.
It doesn’t take long for the play’s primary literary antecedent to make itself known: Jones is writing a contemporary gloss on “Hamlet,” and the allusions in the text and the plotting accumulate accordingly. These are mixed, in true Stoppardian fashion, with some learned bits of information about beekeeping and horticulture (note those names), so that Flora presides over the play both as Gertrude, the adulterous mother, and as an evil queen bee. She’s got quite a sting, certainly, in Brown’s incisive, appropriately waspish performance. Flora eloquently belittles or badgers her son — and pretty much everyone else in her orbit — at every opportunity. Dismissing his emotional distress, she says, “We are every one of us unwell. Do not deceive yourself that you hold the monopoly. Mercy’s not well. She hasn’t been right in years.”
But Jones’ carefully cultivated hives of reference — including many plays on the word “be” (and “bee”), as in “to be or not to be,” natch — don’t really feed the play’s emotional content or meaning in any significant way. (Felix’s speeches about string theory feel particularly extraneous.) They’re mostly just fancy trellis work for some garden-variety conflicts that don’t always feel organic to the characters. Felix’s emotional constipation — Hamlet-like, he doesn’t know what to do with his life anymore, and can’t seem to decided whether to stay or go — begins to seem more a literary pose than a symptom of deep psychological distress. And Flora’s sudden transformation from castrating bitch to grieving widow in the play’s last few minutes is simply bewildering; she is all but reborn as a new character.
Nonetheless, Jones has a natural facility with language, and much of the dialogue has a veneer of bright eloquence that is often amusing. The play’s comic centerpiece, a disastrous lunch party, is orchestrated wonderfully by Caird and his proficient cast, even if the slagging match it devolves into is a pretty cheap way to earn laughs. Hurt shines particularly here, as the eternally humiliated Mercy — who certainly finds none at the hands of her dear friend Flora. Watch as Flora casually flays her — “She has never been married, she has no dress sense to speak of, and she’s always been in love with you, George” — and Hurt’s Mercy gradually wilts under the assault, as in a time-lapse film of a flower going to rot.
Mercy’s floundering distress — followed by her sudden eruption of pride and resilience while saying a very convoluted grace — are conveyed by Hurt with an authenticity and transparency that are as funny as they are heartbreaking. These are unusual moments of fresh feeling in a play comprising characters, dialogue and behaviors that always seem prescribed by authorial fiat. “Humble Boy’s” complex mosaic of imagery and ideas seems impressive on the surface, but look closer and you find the honeycomb is made of plastic.