Moments of Beeing

Keep Your Emotional Distance, and They All Look Like Insects

The drowsy hum of airborne insects signals the arrival of summer, but indoor theaters aren't usually where you hear it. Being tiny, insects make lousy dramatic subjects, except for occasional comic bits in which they're represented only by sound effects. The behavior of their order's various species makes tempting metaphors for equivalent human groups, as in Capek's Insect Play, but these tend to be too dismissively limiting for most audiences to tolerate. Bees, having a fairly complex social organization, should make more promising dramatic material than most insect species. That they communicate by dancing (read Edmund Wilson on this subject) is a strong point in their favor. And they serve a queen, which ought to please, equally, women, gays, cabalists, and devotees of the Marian cult established by Pope Pius IX. I should add that when I refer to "the Marian cult," I mean the worship of Catholicism's Virgin Mary, and not that of Marian Seldes. The latter cult, founded by me, is actually called The Seldesian Society, and is highly selective in its membership, though always willing to entertain applications.

But I was talking about bees. They figure centrally in two recent plays by English women, Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy and Deborah Grimberg's The Honey Maker; the latter is one of the five plays that make up Series A of this year's one-act marathon at EST. In neither case have the metaphoric bees been helpful, though the former has some humor and the latter some good observation. It's just that something about their bee-ness—the image, the sound, the talk they provoke, whatever—tends to make the result, well, humdrum, if you will forgive my lapsing into onomatopoeia.

Humble Boy is a bee-centered reduction of Hamlet. And in the theater, reductions don't always add flavor as they do in cooking; sometimes they actively remove it. Then, too, since Shakespeare wrote so many plays that are either problematically structured or partly obsolete in content, you wonder why playwrights want to keep reworking Hamlet, which is neither, and every word of which makes perfect sense. Be that as it may, Jones's purpose seems to have been to deflate Hamlet's Renaissance grandeur, making her version as banally contemporary as possible while still keeping it piquant and individual. But the banal and the piquant don't merge into anything distinctive; the result is like just another oddly dressed shopper at the local mall. Felix Humble, a shambling and stammering research fellow in astrophysics at Cambridge, is not the expectancy and rose of anybody's fair state; his dead father, a mild-mannered prep-school biology teacher and apiarist in a Cotswolds garden suburb, can hardly be compared to the overpowering military leader who smote the sledded Polacks on the ice. (Apologies for the ethnic slur, which is Shakespeare's, not mine.) Look on this picture, one might say, and on not much else.

Blair Brown and Jared Harris in Humble Boy: a bug in the metaphor
photo: Joan Marcus
Blair Brown and Jared Harris in Humble Boy: a bug in the metaphor

Details

Humble Boy
By Charlotte Jones
Manhattan Theatre Club
131 West 55th Street
212-581-1212

Marathon 2003
Ensemble Studio Theatre
549 West 52nd Street
212-206-1515

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In the absence of a strongly distinctive prince or ghost (remember Howard Dietz's summary of Hamlet, "Where the ghost and the prince meet/And everyone ends in mincemeat"?), such power as Humble Boy contains falls to its Gertrude figure, whose name is Mercy Lott, but who—unsurprisingly if you know the nomenclatural ways of playwrights —displays little mercy; she's half an unfulfilled housewife out of Betty Friedan's nightmares and half a high-bitch social butterfly out of Nicky Silver's comedies. The theatrical economy having shrunk since Shakespeare's day, her longtime lover, the blustering owner of a local bus company, is a meld of Claudius and Polonius, named George Pye. And, yes, since Mercy's late husband's last name was Humble, when she announces her intention to marry George there are duly jokes about Humble Pye. Don't blame me; this is the play what she wrote. Though the suspicion is spread around in standard fashion, neither Mercy nor George turns out to have killed the late James Humble. There's no motive and no cue for passion in this neo-Hamlet's bumbling grief. Given how harshly Felix Humble's mother treats him (Gertrude is a much tenderer soul), his story might evoke Orestes more reasonably than Hamlet. But astrophysicists are rarely ax murderers.

Perhaps, like Prufrock, Felix is not Prince Hamlet nor was meant to be. But in that case, why did Jones bother to write the play? Presumably, to show that she knows Hamlet, though she has nothing in particular to say about it, and just to be clever, which she manages to do in a farcical or a sentimentally epigrammatic way from time to time. One clichéd running joke, the meddling spinster next door, merges usefully for a while with a less worn-out one, involving the late Humble's ashes, for a few giddy moments. Otherwise, the action tends to lag or be yawningly predictable—Jones's total dramaturgic ineptitude pairs intriguingly with her dazzling knack for the cheapest stage tricks—while only occasional flutters of dialogue hint that Jones might ultimately write a play of her own if she could reconcile her sense of contemporary life with her masterpiece-theater consciousness. John Caird's restaging of his London production does what it can for her, though the unprepossessing Jared Harris's relentless mimicry of Simon Russell Beale (who created the role of Felix in London) is an active obstacle. Blair Brown queen-bees her way through Mercy with deliciously merciless elegance, Paul Hecht makes a festive meal of Pye, and Ana Reeder is lovably lewd as his daughter Rosie, Felix's thoroughly un-innocent Ophelia. But the only real joy of the evening is Tim Hatley's set (subtly enhanced by Christopher Shutt's delicate sound score)—just the kind of sunshiny garden, unfortunately, that makes you want to be lounging outside with a good book, rather than stuck indoors at some silly play.

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