Tell me if you think this is funny: A young man is called home from his studies upon the sudden death of his father. Arriving, he discovers his mother in the arms of a local vulgarian,
and despite the efforts of his mother’s officious friend to placate his anger, the young man is outraged, and showers the couple with lava-hot scorn. In the meantime, the young man’s ex-girlfriend arrives, but he is incapable of any emotional response except avoidance.
Now, you may say that’s not funny, that’s Hamlet, but if you do, then you have not appreciated the surprising laughter and tears playwright Charlotte Jones (Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis) has gotten out of the old story by tweaking the characters just a bit and setting it in a 1990s England country house. Instead of Hamlet we have the moist Felix Humble (Matt Newberry), who aspires to be a theoretical astrophysicist and who desperately desires that life get out of the way of his studies. Instead of Gertrude and Claudius we have the sharp-tongued harridan Flora Humble (MiRan Powell) and her rough-edged consort George Pye (Jeff Murray), who contemptuously conflates Felix’s field of study with astrology. Flora’s friend is Mercy Lott (Martha Karl), an obsequious suck-up who, unlike Polonius, knows who she is. Felix’s prior amour is George’s daughter Rosie (Nevie Brooks), older and wiser than Ophelia would ever live to be. They are marking the death, not of the fierce older Hamlet, but of gentle James Humble, a biologist, teacher, and keeper of bees.
Jones slows down the beginning of her play, to its disadvantage, by stuffing Felix with an excess of afflictions, none of which she resolves. Felix suffers from ringing in the ears; he misses his father’s funeral, where he was scheduled to give the eulogy; he is prone to stuttering and has particular trouble with the letter “b” (an unfortunate malady, as he is scheduled to give a presentation on “Black Holes and the Big Bang Theory.”) Jones wrings some comic dialogue out of this material, and the stuttering allows her to reinforce a continuing metaphor involving bees, but the game isn’t worth the candle.
However, once the play gets fully underway – roughly the same time as the excellent Brooks appears as Rosie – it proceeds like a house afire, and director Lee Mikesha Gardner hits the dramatic and comic high points with the same force and effect as Adam Dunn smacking a fat pitch right in his wheelhouse. In a sense, with the stakes here considerably lower than they were in Hamlet, the behaviors are more real and understandable. No one is going to be killed or deposed, but they are going to get hurt – and do get hurt, before our very eyes. Short swords and poison being unavailable to these characters, they go at each other with garden tools and hard truths, and you can see the welts and bruises as they well up in front of us.
Jones and Gardner are assisted by an excellent cast, including David Winkler as a cerebral gardener whose calming influence grounds the febrile Felix at crucial moments. They each fully inhabit the complex characters Jones creates for them, and Brooks is particularly successful in creating a Rosie who is funny, winsome, honorable, and sexy – in short, someone who will make the audience look at Felix and say what were you thinking, man? Karl is also particularly notable as Flora’s make-nice friend – someone we all recognize – and when she finally lets loose, during a pre-meal blessing like none other in history, it will leave you breathless.
1st Stage has as its mission the introduction of new talent to the professional stage. This production features the aforementioned Brooks, fresh from the University of Maryland, and Murray, a retired Foreign Service Officer who is stepping up from a distinguished career in community theater. George Pye is Felix’s principal antagonist and could easily be played as a cartoon villain; it is to Murray’s credit, and Gardner’s, that he comes off as a complicated man who can occasionally be sympathetic.
Normally one doesn’t talk much about the set unless the play is notso hotso. But I would talk about Richard Montgomery’s set even if it was the backdrop for a Royal Shakespeare production of King Lear. Montgomery has recreated, with loving precision, a beautiful English country garden, fronting the rear of a beautiful English country home. Complete with an apple tree. With real apples. The kind you eat. Montgomery, a two-time Helen Hayes nominee, has done set work for The Old Vic, the BBC, National Geographic, and the American Repertory Theatre, among others. He is now working in McLean with this fine young company, thus reminding us that real art is about love.
By Charlotte Jones
Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner
Produced by 1st Stage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Barbara MacKay . DCExaminer