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A CurtainUp Review
The Oldest Boy

"I have to marry someone of my culture. My culture is dying. It's like salt I have to marry someone of my culture. My culture is dying. It's like salt dissolving into water, my people dissolving. If you put a small amount of salt into a very large pool of water, and take a sip, the water is no longer salty. It disappears."— Father.

The Oldest Boy
Ernest Abuba and Celia Keenan-Bolger (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
When all the characters of a play are named according to their functions (Mother, Father, etc.) you wouldn't be amiss to anticipate a fable. Director Rebecca Taichman's gorgeous production with its stunning ritualistic interludes certainly certainly imbues Sarah Ruhl's new play with mesmerizing fairy tale quality. Even though the title character does have a name— Tenzin— he is played by a wonderfully expressive bunraku puppet designed by Matt Acheson and operated with sticks by three adult performers, one of whom (James Saito) also speaks for him.

The other worldly, fabulist aura notwithstanding, the always adventurous and original Ruhl's play is based on a real story told to her by her Buddhist baby sitter Yangzom: A Tibetan couple from Boston who were Yangzom's friends ran a successful restaurant when one day, two monks from India arrived to tell them that their son was a reincarnated lama, or high teacher. The couple closed the restaurant and moved to India to educate the child at a monastery.

To Ruhl, herself the mother of three young children, the idea of letting go of a child to fulfill this reincarnation destiny, seemed incomprehensible yet an irresistible opportunity to dramatically explore issues of faith as well as parent-child and teacher-student bonds. To make this story work as a play, she heightened the drama of the parents' decision by making the mother an American woman not raised as a Buddhist — a woman not unlike herself, raised as a Midwestern Catholic but interested in exploring different concepts of faith and parenting.

Ruhl's play wastes no time having her reconceived mother of this special child (a spectacular star turn by Celia Keenan-Bolger) meet the Tibetan Monk (Jon Norman Schneider) and Lama (James Saito). Their unexpected visit amusingly fills us in on background details. A delightful flashback to the beginning of the culture-crossing love affair of the searching-for-God adjunct literature professor and the Buddhist restaurateur (a sensitively understated James Yaegashi) introduces an easy to identify with cultural dilemma. We see love win out over his wish to be true to his heritage and her willingness to become part of that heritage culminate in a dreamlike fantasy scene of a traditional version of their City Hall marriage. It's the first such exquisite imagery on Mimi Lien's raised platform at the rear of the stage.

While we first see Keenan-Bolger's Mother meditating as part of an effort to eventually convert to Buddhism, she's still Western enough to fall into a dead faint when she hears that her 3-year-old Tenzin is really a reincarnation of the Lama's teacher. Since the program states that the second act moves from the American setting in a city with a large Tibetan community to a monastery in India, it's clear that both Mother and Father aren't simply going to dismiss the question of their child's spiritual future. The dramatic conflict thus hinges on whether their being open enough to go to India will help them to make the right decision. To keep their son within the family fold, or to allow him to remain in the monastery to be enthroned as a high lama.

This what would you do-and why would you do it conundrum is beautifully punctuated by choreographer Barney O'Hanlon and the show's designers with fragments of Buddhist mythology. Since Keenan-Bolger's Mother is the central character and narrator, it's her decision. But with no one pushing her, and even the father leaving the final decision up to her, this beautiful play ultimately suffers from a lack of real dramatic tension. A realistic yet somewhat metaphoric birth scene is, like everything in this production, pungently staged, seems a contrivance to counter this lack of dramatic heft.

Endearing as Keenan-Bolger is, that life sized and very expressive puppet comes close to stealing the show. Is there an award for Best Performance by a puppet?

Sarah Ruhl plays reviewed at Curtainup
Stage Kiss also directed by Teichman
In the Next Room: The Vibrator Play
Dead Man Cell Phone
The Clean House

The Oldest Boy by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Rebecca Taichman Cast: Ernest Abuba (the Oldest Boy), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Mother), James Saito (a Lama), Jon Norman Schneider (a Monk), James Yaegashi (Father) and Tsering Dorjee, Takemi Kitamura and Nami Yamamoto (Chorus).
Sets by Mimi Lien
Costumes by Anna Yavich
Lighting by Japhy Weideman
Sound by Darron L West
Puppet design/direction: Matt Acheson
Choreography: Barney O'Hanlon
Stage manager: Charles M. Turner III
Running Time: 2 hours, includes one intermission
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater 150 West 65th Street at Lincoln Center 212/239-6200
From 10/09/14; opening 11/03/14; closing 12/28/14.
Tuesday, Thursday & Friday, 8PM; Wednesday & Saturday, 2PM & 8PM Sunday, 3PM
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 10/05
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