The Oldest Boy Makes Me Even More Glad That Celia Keenan-Bolger Exists

You guys, I just can’t…because Celia Keenan-Bolger is flawless and I love her.

As if her excellent work in the Broadway productions of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Peter and the Starcatcher and The Glass Menagerie (plus, the Encores production of Merrily We Roll Along) weren’t enough - because they aren’t if you are Celia Keenan-Bolger and have talent to spare - she crushed it again and managed to be the best aspect of The Oldest Boy, Sarah Ruhl’s new play that opened this week at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre. And thank heavens for that because the quality of Ruhl’s play is dubious as fuck.

The story isn’t…I don’t know, ostensibly bad, but it does dabble in some, “okay, let’s just go with it because why not” logic. The parents of a three-year-old child are confronted with the decision of whether or not to give up their son, who is believed to be a Buddhist Lama reincarnated, and send him to grow up in a monastery in India. No, really…it unfolds like a Buddhist Sophie’s Choice. I don’t love religion-centric plays, but I assure you, I maintained as much of an open mind as I could. And I know some people in this world - no one I know, but some people - favor religious tradition above logic and emotion, but what person, in 2014, would soberly consider giving up their child like this?

Basically, this is one thin conceit to hang a story on and every attempt to make this a “what would you do in this situation?” or “can you identify with what these parents are going through?" fell flat to me. I mean, do you remember that time when you considered giving up your baby? Thought so. Celia, as the mother, and her husband were far nicer to these strangers then any parent I know, especially when they intend on whisking away their son for a lifetime of…whatever monks/lamas do, I’m sure prayer is involved somewhere.

And can I just say? That three-year-old puppet portraying Celia’s son was creepy as hell. I mean, I saw the show on Halloween night, so maybe the puppet was extra Halloween-ey for some reason. Or y’know…not. I don’t like wisdom-spewing precocious children, real or puppet, but every time the son made an appearance with the middle-aged man close-by voicing his lines…let’s just say that’s an image I am trying to block out. I understand the reasoning regarding not having a toddler play such a pivotal part - because youths are wild cards and cannot be trusted - but maybe a future production of this show (if there is one), should pick a puppet that doesn’t evoke a horror film monster…like, at all.

But Celia, you guys. Our girl, Celia. Watching her go all “lioness protecting her cub” in the first act is a joy because she morphed into that every-mom who manages to be respectful of everyone involved in this situation, but assertive in her own way with passive-aggression and pathos. She also finds the deep-seated humor in this situation - I laughed out loud on more then one occasion as she is talking on the phone with her mom or as she delivers a one-liner with droll.

And she takes it on home in the second act with more unexpected humor, more emotion and…yeah. To be fair to Ruhl’s writing, the character is well-written. Great even. It’s the story around her that isn’t up to task and Celia’s presence can only make one overlook so much. I like Ruhl - we need more female playwrights and female-led shows, on and Off-Broadway - but other then showcasing its star like I’ve never seen before (A non-boozed out ADULT! A MOM!), The Oldest Boy leaves a lot to be desired.

Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson.

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