Felix Humble is a puerile and confused graduate student of astrophysics who has returned home, Hamlet-like, for his father's funeral. There, he must contend with his shrewish mother, Flora; her lover, the somewhat thuggish George; and George's daughter, Rosie, who Felix once abandoned after an abortive romantic fling. While waiting for his "Eureka!" moment – when the overarching theory of everything will finally cause the disparate harmonies ringing in his head to coalesce – he finds solace in conversations with Mercy, his mother's friend and hanger-on, and Jim, a gentle gardener who tends to the array of backyard flowers in the Humble family estate. The play in which these characters buzz around one another like bees in an apiary,

Charlotte Jones' Humble Boy, was a hit of the 2001 British season. It's currently being staged by the Mad Cow Theatre in a clever but ultimately confusing production by director Denise Gillman. Though Jones thinks of her work as a comedy, it's difficult to pin down exactly what this play intends to be: Sometimes it comes across like an episode of Dynasty, sometimes like I Love Lucy, sometimes Touched by an Angel. In other places, Jones seems to be trying way too hard to channel Tom Stoppard's more accomplished blend of high science and low farce.

Mad Cow's production adds to the perplexity by moving the play's setting from rural England to Savannah, Ga. – yet not all of the characters assume the requisite Southern accent. In addition, Jeff Lindberg, who has the difficult task of impersonating the high-strung Felix, has not succeeded in rendering his character in a way that serves the play's purpose (as vague as that may be).

Around his black hole of a portrayal, though, the other characters shine brightly and give the work its best moments. Robin Olson is terrific as Flora, the self-indulgent matriarch (even though her final-act conversion from happy widow to mourning spouse doesn't make a lot of sense). Stephan Jones plays George Pye with a winning combination of blustery menace and puppy-dog submission. Heather Leonardi makes Rosie, the spurned lover, sympathetic and noble, and Marty Stonerock's Mercy steals all of her scenes with self-effacing ditziness.

Humble Boy is an agreeable work, but one whose parts add up to a diminished whole. Its aspirations may be lofty and serious, but in trying to be too many things, it only ends up as befuddled as its main character.

Humble Boy
Through Feb. 19
Mad Cow Theatre


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