San Diego Humble Boy, by Charlotte Jones
New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State Street, Carlsbad
Directed by Kristianne Kurner; cast: Rosina Reynolds, Daren Scott, Jessica John, Jim Chovick, Dana Case, Tom Deak; scenic design, Francis Gercke; costumes, Jessica John; lighting, Jerry Sonnenberg; sound, Tom Jones
Playing through November 11; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 760-433-3245.
His father died unexpectedly. His mother's been having an affair, he just learned, for quite some time. He had problems with the woman in his life (okay, the other woman, besides his mum), who wonders if she should've gone to a nunnery. Now melancholic, he occupies his mind with trying to unify the cosmos.
Sound familiar? But how about this? In Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy, the departed father, a former biology teacher-beekeeper, has a gentle soul, and the mother ruled the family the way Hamlet's domineering stepfather ruled Denmark. The guy's ex-girlfriend doesn't lard the stage with sweet flowers and bid the ladies "good-night." She moves on and lives her life. And the guy isn't a Danish prince. He's a 35-year-old, socially bungling, theoretical astrophysicist named Felix Humble.
Not that Felix is all that happy. He's working on M Theory, a superstring "explanation of everything" in the universe, but has trouble keeping himself together. His movements are oblique and he stutters when pronouncing words beginning with B. He isn't Hamlet (he's as close to Hamlet as the Dane says he is to Hercules). But they share three things in common: both felt the shock of a sudden death, both are blocked, and both find themselves chosen to "set things right."
In Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, two stories from different periods occupy the same place, Sidley Hall, a country estate in Derbyshire. Stoppard's characters include absent fathers, frustrated mothers, wannabe math-whiz sons, genius daughters -- and ghosts, when people from the early 19th Century overlap with those of the late 20th.
Humble Boy takes place today, in an English country garden. It includes numerous references to Hamlet and Arcadia. These lurk -- or should -- like half-glimpsed specters, or visitants peering through the folds of a parallel universe. Felix's "theory of everything," were it possible, would account for a reality with at least 11 dimensions (some say even more). By making Hamlet and Arcadia resonant backdrops, Jones has written a three-dimensional play, plus two. In effect, Humble Boy's five dimensions locate it almost halfway, in art, to "the mother of all theories."
You don't have to know Hamlet or Arcadia -- or Alan Ayckbourn's space-time experiments, which also figure in the mix -- to appreciate Humble Boy, a wise, funny winner of several London theater awards. And it may have been better if New Village Arts' in many ways capable production had left the Bard alone. Often cast members appear to have Hamlet in the back of their minds and attempt to account for both their characters and Shakespeare's. This juggling act makes for double motivations that slow the pace, in Act One, and create confusions in the story. Humble Boy is not a modern retelling of Hamlet, which functions more as a side-text, lurking in the wings, than a subtext.
Felix has enough grief sorting out his own woes. His is a (s)mothered soul. It's easier for him to contemplate superstring theories than face that "it was always my mother. Always about her. She b-burnt more br-brightly." During the course of the play, and Daren Scott's touching, breakthrough performance, Felix begins the slow process of inching away from under his mother's dominance. He may not make it, any more than flights of angels will waft Hamlet to paradise. But at least he's taken the first steps.
As the mother, Rosina Reynolds gives a sharp, watchable effort, as expected. Like many characters in Arcadia, Flora has city needs in a country setting and suffers from "terminal disappointment." Reynolds uses Flora's boredom to sharpen her wit. What's missing, however, are Flora's controlling impulses -- the ones she's used, instinctively, on Felix and her late husband (soft-spoken Tom Doak, another in-the-wings dimension) and the ones she's beginning to use on unsuspecting George Pye (Jim Chovick: red-faced, engaging vitality). More emphasis on Flora's totalizing impulses would underscore the play's theme of letting go -- not just of loved ones but also of ingrained habits.
Production values get high marks: Francis Gerke's garden set, a cone-like yellow beehive dead center; Jessica John's spot-on costumes (also her smart portrayal of Felix's ex-, Rosie, without a soupçon of Ophelia in the mix); Jerry Sonnenberg's shadows and sunshine lighting enhancing moods.
The NVA production, quibbles aside, is definitely worth seeing -- especially a running bit you could call "follow the dead father's bouncing ashes." And hearing, as when Dana Case's ditzy, distant Mercy Lott says grace and bares her soul. She would have voiced a more chipper blessing in Act One. But now, toward the end of Act Two's beautifully staged dining scene, Mercy's become disillusioned. She gives begrudging thanks, even though "unofficially on a sabbatical from God at the moment."