Shows Worth Seeing:
The Oldest Boy
By Sarah Ruhl
Mitzi Newhouse Theater
150 W. 65th St.
Sarah Ruhl’s new play has a lot on its mind. As a story about a 3-year-old boy in an unnamed American city visited by Tibetan monks who claim he is the reincarnation of a revered lama (spiritual teacher), it dramatizes a collision between Western and Eastern childrearing traditions and between Catholic and Buddhist religious mores. Because the boy is played as a Bunraku-style puppet manipulated by onstage puppeteers, the production also filters its story through an alienation effect—a paradoxical one that suffuses many scenes with intense emotion even as it compels us to think about why we’re choking up. On top of that, the play has a fierce, explicit political undercurrent, with nearly every scene peppered with barely concealed indignation about China’s suppression of Tibetan culture.
It’s remarkable, given all of this, that The Oldest Boy seems as graceful and forthright as it does, rather than overpacked and scattered. Ruhl is a master juggler with exemplary control over balance and tone. The forthrightness, though, comes primarily from the fact that the play does have a predominant concern, which is motherhood. What could possibly convince a loving mother to give up her young child, allow him to be brought up by strangers in a monastery half a world away? What exactly is parental attachment, and what relation does it bear to the sort of attachments devout Buddhists seek release from? The actress Celia Keenan-Bolger, as the play’s unnamed American mother, lends these questions searing immediacy with her fervently sincere performance. She and James Saito, as the visiting lama, form the emotional heart of the production, which is directed by Rebecca Taichman with fluid, understated elegance.
I confess to some disappointment that, after opening up so many fascinating religious and social questions, Ruhl more or less drops them in the end. The play concludes with a bit of a thud as soon as the mother-child emotional complication is resolved. Clearly, what Ruhl most cares about is what she calls the “predicament” of motherhood, a dilemma that pulls a woman away and toward the rest of humanity all at once. If you’re wondering how to feel about that problem, go see The Oldest Boy.