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To Bee or Not To Bee

Humble Boy gets by on solid performances.



Pretentious is a word I tend to avoid because, ironically enough, its meaning has been lost through indiscriminate usage. But there is really no other way to accurately describe Humble Boy, showing through this weekend at Playhouse on the Square. The play, by Charlotte Jones, wants to be many things but is, in reality, a farcical melodrama about a less-than-functional family coming to grips with the loss of its humble patriarch.

Humble Boy pretends to be a contemporary reworking of Hamlet, though rip-off might be a more apt description as it takes the bard's plot points at face value without adding anything new or interesting. It's most obviously a nod to Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead), who has built a career deconstructing the classics and turning stock forms and characters inside out hoping to find new light streaming through old windows. The dark sexual farce at play in Humble Boy is reminiscent of Alan Ayckbourn's Norman Conquests.

But to muddy the waters even further, Jones borrows again from Stoppard and the like-minded Michael Frayn (Copenhagen), two authors known for inserting dense bits of history and science into their plays, creating metaphors that stretch back to the beginning of time and on into infinity. In Jones' case, these metaphors (beekeeping and string theory) seem tacked on -- a painful reminder of nothing more than a self-consciously well-read playwright. Fortunately for Playhouse, the actors -- though misguided at times -- show genuine affection and sympathy for their characters, making what could have been a painful evening of theater reasonably pleasant. Well, at least for the first two hours.

Humble Boy tells the story of Felix Humble (John Hemphill), an aspiring astrophysicist studying string theory, which is generalized to the point of nonsense as "the theory of everything." Fat, loveless, and riddled with self-doubt, the young scientist returns home after his father's mysterious death. His exceptionally vain, sharp-tongued, and Ab-Fab-derived mother (Irene Crist at her icy best) never felt that his beekeeping daddy was good enough for her and is romping unashamedly in the hay with a smarmy, drunken, trash-mouthed bastard (Kelly King), who would be entirely unsympathetic were it not for an artificial dramatic device or three. The conflicted Felix must also confront an old flame (Mary Buchignani) he abandoned for his new mistress, the cosmos, and the heartbreaking possibility that her 7-year-old child is his own. Unlike Hamlet, who couches his suicidal tendencies in a ferocious battle against existential dragons, Felix merely frets and pines away for his father's beloved bees, which Mummy has banished.

Buchignani, a potent character actress, is at her absolute best here, tempering sexual aggressiveness with wounded pride and a vulnerability that belies her tough exterior. Hemphill also manages some fine moments but is regularly tripped up by the play's extraneous flights of metaphorical fancy and a story line that keeps him whining when he should be railing against the fates. King, who came on strong in Playhouse's production of Lanford Wilson's Book of Days, gives a thoroughly convincing performance as a total asswipe but is ultimately ruined by an overt impersonation of Cary Grant. The play's best moments, however, go to Jo Lynne Palmer, a character with hysterical tendencies who seems to be plucked directly from the pages of a Jane Austen novel. Her comic bit involving the dearly departed's ashes and a bowl of gazpacho nearly brought the opening-night audience to their feet mid-show.

Of course, as this is a reworking of Hamlet, there is a ghost, but I'll not get into that here. But woe the poor actor who attempts this part. No matter his prowess, he is doomed by the playwright to failure.

Director Anastasia Herin left Humble Boy a week before the show opened. Michael Detroit and Dave Landis scrambled to finish the job, and the presence of many hands at work is obvious in the actors' inconsistent approaches to their characters. There are moments (and horrid ones at that) when the play's farcical elements are played broadly. But there are also moments when the cast settles in, plays things straight, and mines Jones' bloated script for good humor and genuine emotion. Sadly, what begins pretentiously ends incoherently, with just enough solid acting in between to keep the production afloat.

Through Feb. 27th

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