Theater is such an exciting medium because each performance is different, and brilliance and disaster are equally possible on any given night. The elusive chemistry that characterizes a good show is contingent on factors ranging from audience responsiveness to cast energy levels to the weather. Suffice it to say that when I saw Artists Repertory Theater's performance of Humble Boy, the weather was really, really bad. Humble Boy is a sharp, metaphysical comedy of manners. Call it a soap opera for the Sunday crossword puzzle set. Set in England, it revolves around Felix, a middle-aged theoretical physicist, and his mother, Flora. The Humble Boy script professes to be a modern retelling of Hamlet, and sure enough, when Felix returns home for his father's funeral to find his mother already poised to remarry, the play's central, if slightly less murderous, conflict ensues. Felix's father was a beekeeper; Felix himself is tormented by an inability to "just be" (what is it with the British and bad puns?). Felix struggles both with his mother's new relationship and with his own obsessive need to find an all-encompassing theory to explain the physical universe (this leads to some interesting tangents involving string theory and a garden hose).
As Felix, Todd Van Voris exudes an angsty, neurotic vulnerability; a vulnerability that JoAnn Johnson sorely lacks as Flora, coming across instead as purely bitchy and soulless. The cast struggles with the Britishness of the script; not only do accents range from Scottish to New England-ish, but there's also a distinctly un-English lack of restraint when it comes to shit-talking and backstabbing. The script provides some brilliantly subtle, catty dialogue, and the cast would do well to avoid overacting and let the text speak for itself. A notable exception is Vana O'Brien as Flora's long-suffering best friend Mercy Lot, whose prayer/rant at God is one of the funniest and most engaging moments of the piece. Her monologue hints that ART's cast has the talent to do this worthwhile script justice; but like a sunbeam through the clouds, they're still waiting for the storm to clear.