The Nap by Richard Bean
At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on 47th Street
BS Score Rating: A
Show-Score Rating: 95
The Nap, at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre, is a rare occurrence on Broadway these days – it’s a comedy. And it is very, very funny. The recent death of America’s all-time master of comedy in the theatre, Neil Simon, provoked a lot of reflections on why pure comedies have become such persona-non-grata on the Great White Way. There are plenty of plays that use humor in the pursuit of their seriousness. But playwrights whose highest goal is to make an audience laugh have a tough time getting produced on Broadway.
Leave it to the British to remind us of what we are missing. If we ignore musicals, Richard Bean, The Nap’s playwright, was responsible for one of the few pure comedies to make it to the “hit” level on Broadway in recent memory, One Man, Two Guvnors. While that play was a brilliant adaptation of a classic farce by the 18th century Italian playwright, Carlo Goldoni, The Nap is totally original and thoroughly modern.
Dylan Spokes is a working-class youth whose only goal in life is to win the Worldwide Snooker Championship in Sheffield, England, and he’s pretty good with a cue. Snooker is a little-known sport in “the colonies,” but this variation on pool has become an international fascination beyond its roots in Great Britain. Don’t worry, you do not need to know anything about this foreign sport to enjoy this play; the basic concept of the game is explained, and the actual game-playing is a very small part of the action.
What is a major part of the action is a sort of thriller that tests Dylan’s integrity. I will not spoil the fun of the play to provide too many details here, but a transsexual friend of Dylan’s family, and his mother’s lover before the transition, schemes to make a killing by betting on a round of snooker that Dylan will intentionally lose. Meanwhile, a governmental inspector and a dull-witted snooker expert are investigating Dylan because there was an unusually large wager on one of his recent competitions and they suspect he might have been in cahoots with the people betting on him. When Dylan refuses to compromise his integrity and, in fact, collaborates with the investigators, things get complicated.
Mr. Bean has populated his play with a classic set of comic characters. Waxy Bush is the transsexual who has a lot of trouble choosing the right word, a sort Mrs. Malaprop. “I am nothing if not an optometrist,” she explains. It’s unfortunate that Mr. Bean has given this character such a debasing name; otherwise, happily, he never seeks laughs based on Ms. Bush’s sexual identity. The governmental inspector appears to be the type of British authority we would see on one of those serial mystery shows on PBS, until she becomes sexually attracted to the man she is supposed to be investigating. When she lets her guard down, she explains, “I went from being a pole dancer to the national crime unit – It must have been genetic. My dad was a fireman.” Dylan’s father is a former criminal on the mend who consistently belittles his son. Dylan’s manager is a loud-mouthed buffoon who can’t even manage his wardrobe.
The performances are uniformly top notch. Alexandra Billings is hilarious as Ms. Bush. John Ellison Conlee is appropriately lethargic as Dylan’s dad. Heather Lind plays the inspector/lover with aplomb. Dylan’s snooker opponent really knows how to play the game; Ahmed Aly Elsayed is a two-time champion of American snooker. And at the center, usually functioning as the straight-man, is Ben Schnetzer as Dylan, making us truly feel for a committed and competitive player who gets caught up in a conspiracy to force him to choose between his life-long goal and his relations with family and friends.
Daniel Sullivan, one of Broadway’s most experienced directors, knows how to stage comedy and he has made the British elements totally understandable for an American audience. The sets by David Rockwell are particularly impressive, flying in four realistic three-walled environments. The dialect coach, Ben Furey, has made the American actors into authentic Brits.
The real hero of this production is Mr. Bean. He has intertwined a hilarious comedy with a thriller filled with surprises. What more could we ask of a play designed to simply entertain? Pure comedy is back on Broadway.