HUMBLE BOY by Charlotte Jones, directed by Richard Rose (Tarragon). 30 Bridgman. To February 12. $28-$34, Sunday pwyc-$15. 416-531-1827. See Continuing. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Humble Boy is set in an idyllic, summertime English garden. But the ominous buzzing of bees - Charlotte Dean 's impressive garden includes a huge white beehive - suggests something's not quite right here.
Playwright Charlotte Jones portrays the lives of the Humble and Pye families with dialogue that's full of stings, often comic and sometimes emotionally painful. Astrophysicist Felix Humble, son of the late biologist and beekeeper James Humble, returns for his father's funeral to find he can't deal with the death, or with his mother, Flora's, indifferent attitude, obsession with her recent nose job (she worries her face won't live up to the "rephrased" nose) and closeness to family friend George Pye.
Jones adds to these strongly written characters several others: a mysterious gardener, a Greek-chorus family friend and George's daughter Rosie, with whom Felix broke off unceremoniously several years earlier.
She blends them all in a clever contemporary riff on Hamlet, complete with echoes and tags of Shakespeare's play. Here, anxious Felix is the mourning son, unable to act because he can never get out of his head. On a scale of one to 10, this guy's social skills are in the negative numbers.
Director Richard Rose 's production catches all the show's well-written laughs, especially Fiona Reid' s work as Flora and Nicola Lipman' s as Mercy Lott, the friend who's rather like a Humble retainer. No one can touch Reid in the timing or delivery of snarky put-downs, and Lipman's an obsequious delight, putting up her hand like an anxious schoolgirl each time she speaks. Just as importantly, the two women have some touching moments, too.
Michael Ball rightly makes George a coarse, loud, pleasure-loving intimidator with his own humanizing secret, and Ian D. Clark does what he can with the important but underwritten part of the gardener. In the central role, Dean Paul Gibson plays the comedy well but takes a while to suggest the emotions bubbling inside Felix, a klutzy stutterer who has special problems with words starting with "b." Like "bee."
He comes to life near the end of the first act with the appearance of Sarah Dodd's Rosie, the work's most practical and well-rounded character. Her tart wit and deep feelings make Dodd a vital sparkplug in the production.
Not only does her Rosie help Felix make an emotional connection to the super-string theory that he hopes can explain the meaning of the universe, but she also provides the production with its most reliably dramatic heartbeat.