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.
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.
Deborah Grimberg’s bees are swarming offstage, in the back garden of the North London grocery store where The Honey Maker is set, not nearly so cozy a place as the Humbles’ lavishly landscaped abode. Yet a similar lackadaisical feeling overcomes the work, although Grimberg, now a New York resident, has active political and philosophic notions that she persistently pushes into her script, as if they could drive the action without help from the characters, all of whom exhibit an intriguing lassitude for people apparently caught in the middle of a race riot. In Tom Rowan’s stilted production, even the skinhead racist who intrudes on this awkward encounter between a couple of storekeepers and a beekeeper seems tentative. Thom Rivera captures the grocer’s discomfiture convincingly enough, but this is the kind of play in which people laboriously explain that they’re Uganda-born Indians while a mob of toughs yelling “Pakis” threatens to burn down their store. As Shaw complained about a literary critic who analyzed the style of his political essays, “It was as if I told him his house was on fire and he replied, ‘How admirably monosyllabic.’ ” But maybe Grimberg’s view of racial tensions in North London is such that she would say the equivalent of that to me; I wish her play were better so I could share her alarm.
I wish most of its companions on the Series A bill were better, too: Susan Kim’s Memento Mori begins strikingly, and has a divertingly weird turn by Cecelia deWolf in the showier of its two roles. But this duologue of codependent women with empty lives attempting to lunch out during a 9-11-style disaster gets stuck at an early point and reiterates instead of developing. Billy Aronson’s Of Two Minds, a twisted tale of two unhappy families who get their dysfunctions hopelessly intertangled, has some good laughs and some neat twists, but drags at the top and ends too patly, though Jamie Richardson’s zippy production contains two appealingly apt turns by Annie Campbell and Ian Reed Kesler as the middle layer in its generational sandwich of romantic confusions. Garry Williams’s A Blooming of Ivy, nicely staged by Richmond Hoxie, is a piece of old-fashioned romantic hokum down to the corny title pun on its heroine’s name; its chief asset is the mixed sparkle and grit of Phyllis Somerville’s work as the farm-bound widow who gets an unexpected chance at love. Romulus Linney’s quizzical Coda, smoothly effective in Julie Boyd’s quiet, skillful staging, is an American trip through the familiar territory of Sartre’s No Exit; it has what most of its predecessors on the bill lack, a strong shape, and it has Linney’s lucid way with words, as well as a pleasant performance by Helen Coxe, but not much else.
Don’t weep for the art of the short play, however. EST may very well have stronger material hidden away in Series B, which begins June 1 and includes works by Leslie Ayvazian, John Guare, and Tina Howe. And there are four other bills of one-acts playing at other Manhattan venues. Nor, though it lacks the high spots of previous Marathons, is Series A notably painful to sit through: The one kind of short piece it lacks that’s regularly a feature of these events is the numbingly boring, seemingly interminable one. But if I start thinking about that, I’ll doze off, lulled by the hum of tiny winged insects. Summer’s definitely here; if you insist on opening plays, at least try to see that the ticket buyers don’t get stung. Otherwise we may all decide it’s safer outside.