Garden sets stage for 'Humble Boy'

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  June 20, 2003 at 7:00 AM
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NEW YORK, June 20 (UPI) -- It isn't often that the set is the most talked-about aspect of a new play, but the lovely English garden with a sculptural beehive that is the setting for British playwright Charlotte Jones' "Humble Boy" at City Center is a real honey and the talk of the town.

Tim Hatley is the designer of this remarkable meadow-like garden of grasses and wildflowers dappled by roses of all colors in which the action of this Manhattan Theater Club production of the whimsical London hit takes place. Gorgeously sunlit by lighting designer Paul Pyant, it's just the sort of place anyone would like to while away a summer holiday with old friends and a good book.

But it is not a holiday that summons 35-year-old Felix Humble back to the garden of his childhood but the funeral of the father he adored. The deceased, James Humble, was an unambitious dreamer whose modest demands on life were satisfied with teaching biology at a girls' school, tending his garden, and keeping bees, one of which gave him a fatal sting.

Felix is a scientist, too, a research scholar in theoretical astrophysics at Cambridge University with greater promise than his father. But although he has a brilliant mind, he has the stunted emotional equipment of a teen-ager who can never please a beautiful, self-centered mother and therefore loathes her and has been avoiding her for years.

As the play opens, the stammering Felix has just botched his father's eulogy and fled from the church to the garden to calm his nerves. It doesn't help that he soon encounters his mother, Flora, an ex-Playboy bunny who is less interested in mourning a dull husband than in starting a new life with a fresh nose job and marriage to her longtime lover, George Pye.

Flora already has had her late husband's bee colony exterminated.

Also drawn to the garden are Pye, a longtime friend of the family and a decent chap despite his crudity and bluster, and his daughter, Rosie, who is studying to be a midwife. Flitting about and trying to make everyone comfortable is a plain-jane devotee of Flora's, Mercy Lott, and a wise old gardener, Jim, whose appearances are rare and somewhat mysterious.

As it turns out, Felix and Rosie had a bumbled love affair seven years before, and there is an offstage daughter, Felicity, to prove it.

But this is only one of the revelations about the Humble household that thickens the plot until a showdown at a frantically funny garden luncheon arranged by Mercy points the way to a happy denouement. But not until James Humble's ashes, appropriately kept in a honey pot, are accidentally used to flavor the gazpacho, and the true identity of the gardener is discovered.

Jared Harris' characterization of attractively tousled and bearded Felix, a flawed but lovable boy-man, is by far the most interesting performance offered by "Humble Boy." He can be irritating but is always sympathetic, not unlike Hamlet whom the playwright obviously had in mind when she wrote the play. The audience can believe that Felix may yet prove Einstein's unified field theory but still find it difficult to make connections with other humans.

Tony Award winning actress Blair Brown turns in a brilliant performance as the insensitive, egotistical Flora, a woman of piercing wit who can best described by that overused phrase –her own worst enemy. Paul Hecht as George Pye is embarrassingly coarse, especially when he demonstrates a novel way to water a garden, but forgivably so, and Anna Reeder plays his daughter as a Rosie with thorns, also likable in her spunky way.

Mary Beth Hurt, one of Broadway's most versatile actresses, takes the neurotic spinster Mercy Lott over the top in a hysterical luncheon party soliloquy that is both shocking and hilarious and also deeply touching. Rounding out the cast is Bernie McInerny as the benevolent gardener, a man who can toss off the Latin botanical names of plants as easily as reading a marketing list.

British director John Caird, best known on Broadway for "Les Miserables," has kept the play moving between psychological drama and whimsical comedy with dexterous ease. "Humble Boy" marks playwright Jones' American debut, and this fine production is sure to be followed across the Atlantic by other of her plays. She would appear to be the stylistic heir of Tom Stoppard.

A note of interest to amateur gardeners: The garden grasses are dried bear grass, each blade spray-painted two colors of green. Clumps of grass were planted in polystyrene beds, but blades nearest the audience were implanted in plastic one at a time. The flowers are fabulous fakes made of silk.

To set it up, the garden required eight weeks' of toil by 12 carpenters, 10 painters and four prop people. The garden created for the London production of the play won Tim Hatley the 2002 Olivier Award for best set. Hatley also won a 2002 Tony Award for the best Broadway set – a Riviera hotel façade for the revival of Noel Coward's "Private Lives."

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