Sarah Ruhl is a writer of imagination and considerable experience. The Lincoln Center Theatre has presented two of her early plays, The Clean House and In The Next Room (The Vibrator Play), and Dead Man’s Cell Phone, Euridice and others have birthed around the country’s regional theatres. She is unpredictable and is clearly interested in a multitude of areas; in her latest, The Oldest Boy, she is tackling a delicate crisis she heard about from her children’s baby sitter, Yangzom, a woman from Queens by way of India, by way of Tibet. This play is dedicated to her, because the story she told to Ms. Ruhl brought it about.
The story is second hand, for it happened to friends of Yangzom. The friend and her husband owned a successful restaurant in Boston and one day monks arrived from India to tell the family that their son was a reincarnated lama, or high teacher. They were urgently suggesting that they be allowed to place the boy in a monastery in Tibet for an education that would prepare him for a lama’s life.
Ultimately the parents agreed, they closed their restaurant and joined their son on the other side of the world. The story so intrigued the playwright, she decided to write this play. But she felt that if there was to be dramatic conflict, the mother would have to be a white woman, or one not culturally raised to be a Buddhist. What particularly interested her was exploring the dynamic between the “attachment parenting” prevalent in most mothering circles in the United States, and curiosity about what would happen if the same set of people, raised in Buddhism, which emphasizes non-attachment, had to deal with the same predicament.
Ms. Ruhl takes it from there. She invents a back story for the parents of the boy and she does it with grace and theatrical know-how. As played by Celia Keenan-Bolger (in her first appearance since her lovely work as “Laura” in last season’s The Glass Menagerie) and James Yaegashi, making his Broadway debut after considerable work in the regionals, these young parents of the boy are, despite their disparate backgrounds, comfortable with each other, and content with each other and with the path on which their marriage has begun. The unexpected arrival of the monks, both of them affable and easy to like, shakes things up, and Ruhl adroitly keeps us guessing as to how the story will evolve. Her conclusion is one of many that might have been believable. How satisfying it is will depend on your personal feelings about the clash of differing cultures, competing ideas of faith and love, and a family’s decision about what to do with the external force that abruptly enters their lives and forces life changing decisions to be made.
For me, the play is a well mounted lesson on a subject with which I’ve not been familiar. In addition to the attractive performances of Mother and Father (and that’s how they are characterized), the Monk and the Lama who come calling are most appealingly played by Jon Norman Schneider and James Saito. The three year old boy is most sensibly and realistically played by Ernest Abuba, who stands behind a puppet crafted cleverly to look like a three year old of mixed heritage. Mr. Abuba manages to speak the boy’s dialog in a child’s voice and he shares the manipulation of the puppet’s arms, legs, fingers and feet with another actor who helps considerably.
Rebecca Taichman has staged it very simply by keeping it all center stage with simple changes of furniture to indicate various locations in Boston and in Tibet. A vivid scrim shielding a raised walk against the back wall permits colorful parades upstage to further bring local color, particularly in the Tibetan sequences in the second of the two acts. The sets, costumes and lighting by Mimi Lien, Anita Yuvich and Japhy Weideman all lift the production to a series of vivid pictures that enrich the intriguing tale of the oldest boy in a very special family. It was to me like a well animated lecture on a custom with which I’d not been familiar.
I can’t say I connected emotionally to it, but I found it interesting, informative and beautifully presented. One wonders what will interest Sarah Ruhl next. One thing is most certain; it will likely surprise you.
The Oldest Boy is onstage at the Lincoln Center Theater – Mitzi E. Newhouse, 150 West 65th Street, NYC 10023
Details and tickets.
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.