Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse
150 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 28, $87
Inspired by a true story told to her by her children’s Tibetan babysitter, playwright Sarah Ruhl explores motherhood, Buddhism, and monastic tradition in The Oldest Boy. Three-time Tony nominee Celia Keenan-Bolger (The Glass Menagerie, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) stars as a Cincinnati-born mother who is surprised when a monk (Jon Norman Schneider) and a lama (James Saito) arrive at her home (in an unnamed American city), claiming that her three-year-old son is the living reincarnation of the monk’s beloved teacher. Both she and her husband (James Yaegashi) — a Buddhist owner of a Tibetan restaurant who was born and raised in India, where the Dalai Lama and many Tibetans have lived in exile since the Chinese army crushed the 1959 Tibetan uprising — are honored that their child might be a tulku, or reincarnated Rinpoche. However, they face a dilemma, for the monk and the lama have come to take the boy to be enthroned in Dharamsala, where he will study in a monastery and become a Rinpoche himself, the teacher now being taught by his student in the endless circle of life. While the thought of giving up her son is shocking to the mother, the father is much more accepting of the situation, as it is part of his family’s culture.
The Oldest Boy is set on a round wooden floor that evokes a mandala. Two-time Pulitzer finalist Ruhl (The Clean House, In the Next Room, or the vibrator play) and director Rebecca Taichman (Ruhl’s Stage Kiss and Orlando) open up the back wall of the Mitzi Newhouse, where performers enact symbolic rituals that highlight Tibetan culture but detract from the central narrative, more David Henry Hwang than Sarah Ruhl. Keenan-Bolger and Schneider are both excellent, their difficult relationship wholly believable. The boy is portrayed by a wooden puppet operated by Takemi Kitamura, Nami Yamamoto, and Ernest Abuba, with Abuba providing the speaking voice. It’s a conceit that is odd and uncomfortable at first but ends up working rather well. Also influenced by such documentaries as Unmistaken Child and My Reincarnation, The Oldest Boy is a moving, if uneven, portrait of faith and family, of the value of belief and tradition in the modern world.