What would you do if a Buddhist monk appeared at your door, claiming your three-year-old son was the reincarnation of a revered Tibetan Lama, and wanting to take him from you and raise him in a monastery in India?
If you’re the lapsed Catholic mother from Cincinnati married to an immigrant Tibetan chef in “The Oldest Boy” Sarah Ruhl’s new play at Lincoln Center, the answer is: Give him up.
Since, for a New York audience, this constitutes an altogether unlikely scenario, “The Oldest Boy” is probably best appreciated as a parable. At one point (the otherwise unnamed) Mother wonders how Mary and Joseph felt about Jesus running away to teach when he was 12 years old, and then asks: “Once you have children, does worry become a placeholder for thought?” Later she says: “Sometimes I think good mothers have to think they’re bad just in case, and it’s only bad mothers who think they’re good. Like: to keep a plane in the sky you have to constantly worry that it will fall down.”
What “The Oldest Boy” offers, besides a meditation on the anxieties of motherhood and an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, is a visually splendid production overseen by director Rebecca Taichman, with performances that range from luminous to beatific.
Celia Keenan-Bolger, who was so wonderful as Laura in The Glass Menagerie, here plays the mother, a former professor of English literature who no longer saw the virtue of her calling after her mentor died, and, one senses, has been on a quest for fulfillment ever since. In what counts as a long flashback, we see how one rainy day she walked into the restaurant of the man who became her husband, although she was engaged to somebody else and his family was arranging a marriage with a Tibetan woman for him. James Yaegashi plays the husband (Father) as only slightly less patient and calm as the two religious men who come visiting, the monk (Jon Norman Schneider) and the lama – a higher-ranking monk – portrayed by James Saito so convincingly that it comes as a surprise that he’s had roles in “30 Rock” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” The son, the oldest boy, is a bunraku puppet voiced by Ernest Abuba, an adult – an excellent idea, in my view; let’s have fewer child actors and more puppets.
Ruhl says in a note that she met in real life somebody whose biography more or less matches that of the puppet character – the child of an American mother who was recognized as a reincarnate lama at the age of three, and “enthroned” in a monastery in India. Still, the complete and repeated certainty with which she establishes the fact of her character’s reincarnation makes the audience feel a bit force-fed.
The most hardened skeptic, however, can be won over by the work of the designers, especially on a second stage that resembles a huge rectangular picture window above the main stage, where we are treated to one gorgeous tableau after another.
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.
The Oldest Boy
At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center
By Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Rebecca Taichman; 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..
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).
Running time: 2 hours, including one intermission.
The Oldest Boy is scheduled to run through December 28.