Humble Boy, the season opener at the Performance Network, is a perfect storm of transcendent script, stellar ensemble acting, and the directorial hurricane force of Malcolm Tulip. Tulip can usually be counted on to deliver humor, innovation, and creative whammy, but this production, which runs through October 31, is also brilliantly detailed. I saw it the first night of preview, a night theaters usually try to steer critics away from, and it was up and running like a top. Kudos to the support crafts of costume, lighting, and props too — not to mention dialect coach, a job that's not even credited.
Taking place in the garden of a proper middle-class family in the Cotswolds, Humble Boy is a modern-day recasting of Hamlet. Stripped down to a cast of six, the tale of complex interrelationships, dysfunction, and gloom plays more like Chekhov. The Hamlet parallel is fun, but unnecessary to know about. Humble Boy is a fine, many-layered play in its own right, and Tulip has wrung every drop of complexity and humor from it.
"Hamlet" is Felix Humble (played by Will Meyers), an astrophysicist so self absorbed he could be a poster child for Asperger's syndrome. He's returned home for his father's funeral and confronts a messy domestic scene. He learns that his mother has been having a rather shabby affair for years. Her paramour is no stranger — he's the father of a childhood playmate Felix used and abandoned seven years ago, and who now has a six-year-old daughter that no one told him about. Rounding out the small cast is Mum's dithering sycophant of a friend, and the gardener, paralleling Shakespeare's Polonius and ghost.
It's hard to say who deserves most credit for this extraordinary production, which is deeply funny as well as intelligent and touching. Besides being a fantastic ensemble, the actors each have their star moments, and Gillian Eaton, as Felix's mother, is an entire galaxy. As for the play itself, I'm glad I didn't see any of the early press releases, which apparently make the story sound a bit precious and contrived — the entire play is framed around a pun on Hamlet's most famous two words. In other words, it's a play about the life of bees. On paper, that probably sounds like a bit much to toss into the mix, but onstage, it merely adds another dimension to a story that is well able to accommodate it.