Sarah Ruhl’s latest play, The Oldest Boy, having its world premiere at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse, is a magical spiritual investigation into the relationship between teachers and students, and mothers and sons. Based on a true story told to the author by her Tibetan housekeeper, Rebecca Taichman’s production uses dance (choreographed by Barney O’Hanlon), ritual and a puppet (designed and directed by Matt Acheson) for three-year-old Tenzin. The play also has the Mother directly address the audience and features breathtaking and colorful lighting effects by Japhy Weideman on Mimi Lien’s minimalist but pleasing setting, as well as beautiful Asian costumes by Anita Yavich.
According to Ruhl’s notes in the printed version of the play, “there are a handful of Tibetan lamas who have been reincarnated in the West, some to white parents, or to inter-cultural parents.” However, the play also works on the level of teachers passing their knowledge on to their students who follow in their footsteps. This has happened to the Mother, a doctoral candidate in literature, who has felt bereft after losing her mentor with whom she had a spiritual bond. Ironically, the most emotional character is the bunraku puppet Tenzin, (“the oldest boy” as he is the reincarnation of the late lama), voiced by Ernest Abuba and manipulated by several actors.
Other than Tenzin, the other characters are not given names, just generic type descriptions. Celia Keenan-Bolger, most recently seen on Broadway as Laura in The Glass Menagerie, is a suitably unsettled Mother attempting to cope with something out of her comfort zone. As her husband tells her, “When it was convenient you wanted to be Buddhist; now that it is inconvenient you do not want to be Buddhist.” James Saito as the Lama and Jon Norman Schneider as the Monk exude a kind of otherworldly inner peace. James Yaegashi as the Tibetan Father is placid in a very Buddhist manner as well. The chorus is played by Tsering Dorjee, Takemi Kitamura and Nami Yamamoto.
Sarah Ruhl, whose New York productions include Stage Kiss, Orlando, The Clean House, Eurydice, Dead Man’s Cell, Passion Play, a cycle, and the Broadway production of In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, has always experimented with form, content and production values. The Oldest Boy is no exception. Whether one enjoys the Lincoln Center production for its visual or spiritual values, it is an unusual play which ought to give pleasure to many theatergoers. However, some many find the subtle thematic message obscure.
The Oldest Boy (through December 28, 2014)
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.lct.org
Running time: one hour and 55 minutes including one intermission