Playwright Sarah Ruhl‘s “The Oldest Boy” wishes to be an imaginatively theatrical meditation on the interconnections among parenting, spirituality and mentorship. Its structure is unconventional and the ideas it touches on aspire to be provocative — but it fails to do much with that promise.
Not that it’s an unpleasant journey to watch the fine new production of the play that opens the Unicorn Theatre’s 2015-2016 season. Two standout performances and solid work both on and off stage make for an enjoyable, if unsatisfying evening.
“The Oldest Boy” tells an extremely simple story: An unnamed stay-at-home mother in an unnamed big city gets a surprise visit from a Tibetan lama and a monk from India. They politely ask to wait until her Tibetan husband comes home from work, and display an unusual curiosity and delight in her three-year-old son Tenzin, who welcomes them with alacrity.
Soon after the unnamed father arrives, we learn the two religious men have made their mysterious trek because they believe Tenzin to be the reincarnation of the lama’s own teacher. They want the parents to allow him to “return” to India to begin his own Buddhist education. The similarities to Bernardo Bertolucci’s vastly more complex 1993 film “Little Buddha” are strikingly obvious.
The dynamic and compulsively watchable Katie Kalahurka plays the mother — the only fully-realized character in the play. Through some fairly clunky exposition, we learn she is a lapsed Catholic and “ABD” PhD student (she never got through the oral exams, for a ham-fisted reason we learn in the second act).
The mother has rejected Catholicism for its irrationality, and academia for its pettiness and semantic games. She’s making a half-serious attempt at adopting her husband’s Buddhism in search of her own identity.
Kalahurka imbues the character with a loose, naturalistic performance. She and director Cynthia Levin wisely avoid turning the mother into the hippy-dippy cliche she could be in schtickier hands.
Wai Yim also excels as the calmly reassuring lama, certain that he’s found his old teacher in Tenzin, yet exquisitely sensitive to the Western mother’s anxieties about losing her firstborn to an alien world.
Vi Tran has precious little to work with as the father, whose disappointment of his fiercely traditionalist parents by rejecting their arranged marriage has been told time and time again.
And then there’s Tenzin, played by two puppeteers and a life-size wooden figure (at least most of the time).
What to say about Tenzin?
It’s unavoidable to look at the a puppet simply as a pragmatic, and not terribly effective solution to a real-world problem: How else do you portray a toddler on the theater stage?
Alex Espy and Andi Meyer manipulate Tenzin while dressed in black, much like the Japanese tradition of Bunraku, where the audience understands to pretend the puppeteers are invisible.
But this puppet has quite a bit of dialogue, which is voiced by the silver-haired Espy. Mesner Puppet Theater’s Mike Horner has designed Tenzin with an placidly abstract face that is often at odds with Espy’s ebullient inflections.
Had Ruhl placed her puppet in a world with more — heck, any — other broadly theatrical flourishes, it would have made more sense. Here, it’s a puzzling half-step.
The same could be said of the play’s thematic aspirations. For all of the mother’s skepticism about religion, she’s oddly accepting of a stranger’s proclamation about her own son’s soul and the lifelong path it dictates. And though Ruhl draws parallels about the character’s own control-freak mother and her close relationship with her dissertation adviser and her husband’s disgust at Western intellectuals’ willful ignorance of the horrors of commumism, they fail to pay off in a significant way.
The physical production is handsome, with an economically versatile set by Sarah White, assisted by TzuChing Cheng. Alex Perry’s subtle and unobtrusive lighting design assisted by Edward Hayo is among the most masterful ever seen at the Unicorn, whose physical space poses unique challenges.
Contemplative but not quite intellectual, droll but never really funny, “The Oldest Boy” is a riddle. Sarah Ruhl’s ambitious but strangely incurious play just doesn’t know what it wants to be.