No pie for you

Sitting through an undercooked play yields the same result as eating a side of bad ground beef: Diners (or play patrons) may contract E. coli, Salmonella or some other colon-ravaging “bug.”

Well, actually, plays can’t convey parasites, bacteria and the like, but they can leave an astringent taste in one’s mouth and a sense of profound emptiness and malaise in one’s gut.

Charlotte Jones’ tragicomedy “Humble Boy,” playing through Jan. 28 at Pioneer Memorial Theater, tries fervently to imbue itself with the sort of profundity that grants great works entry into the continuous literary conversation that we call “the canon.”

In the program notes, playwright Jones discusses her play’s parallels to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (but avoids, or shuns, the equally obvious congruence to Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” David Auburn’s “Proof” and Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind,”), and infuses her play with all sorts of muted existential themes and symbolism. She tries to round her characters into complex, genuine beings. Some heady science supposedly plays a large part in the play’s development. Everything is meant to have multifarious meanings. There’s even a bit of mental illness thrown in for fun.

These ought to register as prime ingredients for a spectacular play. But in this case, they’re not. Jones tried to do too many things and, consequently, “Humble Boy’s” plot is patchy, its characters inconsistent and its thematic content dodgy and difficult to discern. Despite the playwright’s good intentions, fastidious production and all-around sterling performances, the play just feels as though it’s going through the perfunctory motions.

It’s just too underdeveloped.

“Humble” centers on Felix Humble (played by Sean Arbuckle), a milquetoast astrophysics research fellow at Cambridge University who returns to his mother’s bucolic English country home for his father’s funeral.

Felix, like seemingly all geniuses in modern drama, suffers from a huge number of strange, ambiguous psychological problems. He stutters, appears to endure intermittent psychotic or schizophrenic episodes (invariably accompanied by irritating, strident sound bites) and bears the typical social ineptitude and insecurity ascribed to nutty professors.

His mother, Flora (played by Patricia Hodges), nettled by nature’s aging process, cannot find satisfaction in any area of her life. Felix bothers her, she finds her friends-especially Joyce Cohen’s ingratiating Mercy Lott-unfulfilling, and her uncouth lover, George Pye (played by Max Robinson, who looks remarkably like an age-progressed Kevin Bacon), a stressful bore.

She and Felix bicker on the magnificently crafted pastoral English garden set (credit to apt designer Peter Harrison), in which the entire play takes place. Soon, Felix’s jilted lover and George’s daughter, Rosie Pye (played by Michelle Six), enters and stirs up a ruckus.

Some more stuff happens-allusions are made, themes shoddily fleshed out, characters interact-and the play ends in a rash and unsettled resolution.

“Humble Boy’s” obvious “Hamlet” homage lacks the expected novelty. Felix talks to the ghost of his father Jim (played by Munson Hicks) in the garden, just as “Hamlet” did. His mother plans to remarry soon after her husband died. There’s also a silly, convoluted motif surrounding the bees the Humbles keep in the garden. It all seems contrived and?well?silly-not at all literary and astute.

But that problem pales when compared with the play’s glaring lack of resolution. We find out that Felix unwittingly sired Rosie’s child. She offers him a chance to be involved in her daughter’s life, but we never find out if he does. He doesn’t balk at the invitation or anything-he just seems to forget about it after she leaves.

In a similarly irritating event, Felix’s father’s ashes are involved in a stomach-turning mix-up, but nobody onstage but Mercy ever discovers the truth. The problem just sort of evanescesm, and the potential comedy osmoses into the gorgeous environs. Indeed, the whole play feels haphazard, distracted and incomplete. It’s as if Jones built a wonderful house foundation, then covered it in a tarp and demanded that it’s fully functioning and her kids should live in it.

Arbuckle, as Felix, harbors a few distracting tendencies. His stutter sounds forced, and when Felix gets angry, Arbuckle’s voice morphs from meek to a stentorian vibrato that resonates as distinctly out of place.

The rest of the cast, however-from Hicks’ understated Jim to Robinson’s brash George-handles scant material well and makes a drab play a little more entertaining.

But ultimately, it’s “Humble Boy’s” aesthetic adeptness that provides the most enjoyment. Designer Harrison’s beautiful English garden backdrop, complete with trees, brush, a realistic cottage faade and an impalpably nostalgic ambiance, adds a lacking dimension to the play.

Maybe, for some people, that’s enough.

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