“I am a fish and snooker is my sea,” says Dylan Spokes, an aspiring marlin of a player in “The Nap,” the delightfully loopy comedy by the “One Man, Two Guvnors” playwright Richard Bean. Even with some deft explaining, Yank audiences may still be behind the eight ball — wait, there’s no eight ball — in this Brit-centric, billiard-like game that’s at the heart of the play. But they’re sure to revel in Bean’s eccentric characters and daft dialogue even as they raise their eyebrows over the plot — and plot twists.
There’s also something mysteriously appealing in entering the world of this pub-popular sport, here set in Sheffield, England, ground zero for snooker championships. Add high stakes, lowlifes and a wicked wit, and you’ve got a solid win.
Earnest Dylan (Ben Schnetzer) practices for the next big tourney in a dingy social hall when his charming rogue of a dad (John Ellison Conlee) drops by for support and deadpan yucks with his gentle-natured, philosophizing, vegetarian son. (When Dylan passes on a shrimp sandwich because he doesn’t eat anything with a brain, wise-guy Dad counters with, “They’re shrimps, they’re not novelists.”)
Comedy and plot kick in when Mohammad Butt, an “integrity officer” of the game (Bhavesh Patel) and Eleanor Lavery, an officer of the “national crime agency” (Heather Lind), make a surprise visit for a urine sample and words of warning about game-fixing, given Dad’s checkered history with the law and the gangster leanings of Dylan’s sponsor, Waxy Bush, a transgender woman played with icy cold snap by the terrific Alexandra Billings (“Transparent”). Also on hand is Dylan’s manager (Max Gordon Moore, who gives a hysterical life-in-extremis performance).
Malaprop-prone Waxy (who has “a peanut analogy”) was previously the (male) lover of Dylan’s mom (Johanna Day, hysterically blowsy), who now has a new seedy beau (Thomas Jay Ryan). Waxy turns the hometown-hero story into a crime caper when she demands that Dylan tank one frame of a match in order for her to reap a bonanza of worldwide bets — or else mom gets off’d.
This is a test for the ethically pure Dylan, who happens to have fallen in love with Eleanor — the least authentic part of this leap-of-narrative-faith comedy. Still, Schnetzer is sweet, sexy and millennial-appealing, as he keeps his character grounded while the comic stakes keep rising. But the entire cast, under Daniel Sullivan’s smooth-as-felt direction, score big as well.
Two games are performed live with an actual snooker whiz, Ahmed Aly Elsayed, as Dylan’s competitor. There’s in-the-moment drama as the audience follows on large overhead projections as the game is played, with tensions broken by the laughs derived from the hush-speaking commentators. The second game brings even more fraught nerves as its conclusion is entirely up to the skill of Schnetzer — with an alternative ending if things don’t go exactly as planned. But either way, the game — and this improbable comedy — ends with a solid shot in the corner pocket.