Monday, December 1, 2014

Off-Broadway Theater Review: The Oldest Boy

This Story Idea Proves a Bit of a Leap of Faith
By Lauren Yarger
You’re a mother and of course that means you want the best for your son. But what if the “best” means that when he is just 3, you have to give him over to the care of strangers in a foreign land and never see him again?

Such is the question playwright Sarah Ruhl wants us to ponder in her new work, The Oldest Boy, getting an Off-Broadway run at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre. It seems Tenzin (portrayed by a puppet created and directed by Matt Acheson of War Horse fame), the toddler son of an American woman (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and a Tibetan man (James Yaegashi), has been recognized as the reincarnation of a recently deceased Lama, a high Buddhist teacher. A visiting lama (James Saito) and a monk (Jon Norman Schneider) want the parents to allow them to take Tenzin to their temple in India for training.

To make the idea a bit more plausible, Ruhl (Stage Kiss, In the Other Room, Dead Man’s Cell Phone; faculty at Yale School of Drama) pens the mother as someone who embraces and who eventually converts to the Buddhist faith.

Even still…..

Apparently the reincarnated lama/boy (who seems really creepy in his wooden puppet form -- manipulated by some chorus members -- and voiced in a whiny manner by full-grown Ernest Abuba) needs to go back, but his parents can’t come with him. Oh, they go check out the place (vividly created with projections, costumes, lighting and choreography designed by Mimi Lien, Anita Yavich, Japhy Weideman, and Barney O’Hanlon respectively), but once a special ceremony takes place the toddler transforms into his former, older self – at least in the eyes of his mother. Emotionally struggling with giving up her boy, she is thrilled that her new baby is a girl and can’t be taken away for training in a monastery.

Really? Would any mother willingly drop off her son in another country, say goodbye and return home convinced that the sacrifice would be worth it in the long run? Maybe, but not me, so I struggled with the plausibility of the plot throughout the play. Even if you became convinced that your son was the reincarnation of a wise teacher who wanted to return to his roots, wouldn’t you want to stay with him and see him while he was growing up? Could you really stand their while your son cried and miserably and begged you not to allow the monks to cut his hair and let them? I couldn’t.

Let’s put it into context to which I can relate. Say my son were discovered to be in line to the throne of England and he needed to grow up at Buckingham Palace to be trained in his royal heritage. Would I want to stand in the way of his being able to claim his inheritance? No. I would want him to be able to ride to the hounds, attend state dinners and wear the crown jewels with the best of them. But you’d better believe the queen would have to provide a suite at the castle for me too, because I can’t imagine packing him up at the age of 3, dropping him off at William and Kate’s and never seeing him again. And if they insisted on giving him a haircut to make him look like Prince Charles, you better believe I would object.

There is no loss of affection between the mother and son in the play, even when the older man’s soul seems to take over the boy, so the whole question about giving him up totally and making a sacrifice seems to be more about creating a plot device to give emotional fodder rather than grounding a story in plausible circumstance (Keenan-Bolger does justice to the flighty, conflicted American woman). The father even suggests at one point that they can move to India and visit the boy on weekends. Good idea.

That said, there isn’t too much tension about the religious choices of the mother either. Raised Catholic, the woman embraced the “scientific” and “rational” qualities of Buddhism in a search for God that also took her through a time of atheism (ironically, she hates the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son). She met her Tibetan husband when she fell in love with the food he cooked at his restaurant (this and other elements of the story are told in flashbacks, directed by Rebecca Taichman in a manner that doesn’t confuse) and now, it appears their meeting was ordained when their son, as his former Lama self, chose her to be her mother in his rebirth.

She doesn’t really answer, I noticed, however, when her young son starts asking questions and making philosophical ponderings about God. She later decides she is ready to convert and asks for guidance from the visiting lama who says he used to be her son’s student.

The highlights in this otherwise non-engaging two-hour production are some comedic moments with the monk and the beautiful backdropping which incorporates live action, sound and images to transport us to spiritual Asia.

The Oldest Boy is Reincarnated Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Wednesday and Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 3 pm at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th St., NYC. Tickets $87.; (800) 432-7250.

Christians might also like to know:
-- Buddhist meditation, chanting and prayer
-- God's name taken in vain

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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