Thursday, 20 November 2014

THE OLDEST BOY by Sarah Ruhl at the Lincoln Center Theater

     This is an interesting but somewhat unsatisfying play that never digs deeply enough into its subject matter, thus veering dangerously close to a Lifetime movie.
     "Mother" (Celia Keenan-Bolger) -- you're always in trouble when characters are listed this way in the program -- was a graduate student in English who never finished her dissertation after her adviser died. Her mentor's love of literature and skepticism of the fashionable theorists in the department (I know how this feels) was an inspiration to her. Right after he died, Mother went into a Tibetan restaurant and immediately fell in love with the owner (James Yaegashi). She was engaged and he was about to enter an arranged marriage to please his family, but "Mother" won out. When the play begins, they have a three-year-old son. Into their world come two Tibetan monks who tell Mother and Father that their son is the reincarnation of the older monk's Lama and teacher. The evidence is convincing enough to lead to a crisis for the parents -- do they allow their son to be taken to a monastery in India or to they fight to keep him? Mother says at one point that motherhood is a bigger idea than any religion. I won't spoil the play by recounting what happens. I will say that an absorbing first act is followed by a weak second act and a conclusion that isn't the least bit conclusive.
     I am delighted to see a play that takes religion seriously. Father was born Buddhist and Mother has been drawn to Buddhism, but beyond the idea of reincarnation, we are given little sense of the religion. Motherhood, which is placed in conflict with the claims of the monks, seems a vague concept to be placed against Buddhism. It's a feeling, not a theology, so no dramatic argument is possible beyond the claims of sentiment.
     Rebecca Taichman's production is so beautiful that it carries one along over the potholes in the script. The son is portrayed by a puppet and voiced by a grown man, as if we are hearing -- and seeing -- the voice and body of the Lama who has been reincarnated in the boy. Celia Keenan-Bolger gives a heartfelt performance. Handsome James Yaegashi doesn't plumb much emotional depth. Jon Norman Schneider and James Saito are charming as the monks, but I wish Ruhl has done more with these characters. Three "chorus" members help with the puppet and some splendid theatrical effects.
     I enjoyed THE OLDEST BOY, but will remember visual moments more than the substance of the play. Once again Sarah Ruhl skirts the intellectual and emotional potential of her material. The play is too nice.
THE OLDEST BOY. Lincoln Center Theater Mitzi Newhouse Theater. November 19, 2014.

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