When my fellow Theatrejunkie and I arrived for the Manhattan Theatre Club newest production a few nights ago to see their latest Broadway entry into the 2018-19 season, we wondered, quite loudly to each other, what this little show about billiards was doing on a big Broadway house stage. It didn’t really feel like something that should be seriously taking its place beside such pieces of work, like To Kill A Mockingbird, Bernhardt/Hamlet, or even the unknown but starry Lifespan of a Fact, as the fall is seemingly filled to the rim with big named play talent. Even as the curtain rose on a dingy back room with a wide and decrepit grand billiard table, the question still remained. It’s a high-class set, with all the trimmings, but there is no real big marquee names in the cast besides the talented and Tony nominated Johanna Day (Broadway/Public’s Sweat), playing a secondary role as a mother without a whole lot of maternal instincts. But as the game of championship pool and grifting gets underway, with the handsome and very appealing Ben Schnetzer (Matthew Warchus’ “Pride“, TNG’s Sticks and Bones) in the lead as the morally strong vegetarian billiard player born on the wrong side of UK Sheffield‘s tracks, our attitude slowly started to shift. Maybe there is a good reason Richard Bean‘s play, The Nap, has found its way across the pond and into the Friedman Theatre. Than, when the lead carefully explains the texture of the pool table top to the beautiful but deceptively interested cop, Eleanor Lavery, played seductively by Heather Lind (MTC’s Of Good Stock), the title of this better-than-expected play starts to reveal its tightly defined and funny con-job of a play, pulling us sneakily into the high stakes intrigue and the surprisingly twisted world of champion billiards.
“What a dump”, you might say, three or four times maybe, as we watch the red billiard balls glide across the table in that dingy back room, as the whole ensnared game begins to revolve around the very appealing young talented Dylan Spokes, played solidly by Schnetzer. He’s a good moral lad, easily someone you could easily enjoy the afternoon with playing pool with. He’s joined in the back room by his gruff and sweet-natured former drug-dealing father, Bobby Spokes, played endearingly by John Ellison Conlee (Broadway’s The Full Monty), who struggles with simple math and names of films, but naturally shoots the breeze and feeds the meter for his son. That is until the sexy policewoman, Eleanor (Lind) and securities partner Mohammad Butt, played with an over-the-top bravado (that makes sense later on) by the talented Bhavesh Patel (Broadway’s Present Laughter) aggressively and suggestively enter the hall and sets the game in motion even before the balls are racked.
His oddly attired mother, Stella (Day) with her tag along smelly boyfriend, Danny Killeen, played by Thomas Jay Ryan (PH’s Dance Nation), and the smarmy card thrusting agent, Tony DanLino, played by the very funny Max Gordon Moore (Atlantic’s Describe the Night) are next to come a-calling, pole opposites but similarly motivated. It’s the eve of the big championship match, and the clan has gathered, circling as if they are vultures eyeing their prey, presenting themselves in an effort to support and protect this young man, or seize on an opportunity. Dylan is desperate to use his skill and passion to pull him up and out of a fate much like his father’s but these three all seemingly want to come along for the ride. It all feels like silly and harmless fun and games up until it’s not. And then the dreaded gangster arrives. Clad in white, the gangster, that the parents seem very worried and preoccupied by has quite the Moonstruck past. Going by the name of Waxy Bush (yes, that is really the character’s name) played with poise and ridiculousness by the straight-faced Alexandra Billings, a transgender actress from the television show, “Transparent“, she is the feared woman who was formerly the man who had an affair with Dylan’s mom. Filled with oddly funny quirks and an aggressive state of being, her arrival sets the sting in motion with a convoluted plot line that surprisingly sits quite well within the game. It’s complicated but neat, and lines up the snooker balls with a strong dose of deadly serious humor and winkey dread resulting in a silly but charming break.
The humor is not as smart as the plot twists and turns. Most of the jokes are simplistic, repetitive, and cheap, but they certainly are funny, at least for the first half. Waxy’s tripping over words gets a bit stale with each line, but the entwined tale keeps us tuned in. The pieces never stop moving and dropping in, much like the smart and finely tuned set by designer David Rockwell (Broadway’s Lobby Hero), and lighting by Justin Townsend (Broadway’s The Little Foxes), with an odd collection of costumes by Kaye Voyce (2ST’s Mary Page Marlowe) that neatly fit in with the outlandish silliness of the humor. It barrels headlong towards the game, like a cue ball aimed at the high scored black ball in the final shot. Real life snooker champion Ahmed Aly Elsayed plays both of the competitors vying for the title against Dylan, Abdul Fattah and Baghawi Quereshi with amazing skill and dexterity, setting up the shots precisely to make this match work as planned, and the referee/Seth is played with focus and clarity by Ethan Hova (Ma-Yi’s The Wong Kids). Moore, taking a break from playing the orange agent, and Hova on board, the two are very funny as the announcers of the televised games, almost stealing the spotlight from the players without ever being seen. Kudos to Lindsay Jones who is credited with the original music and sound design (Public’s Privacy), helping make The Nap and those television moments shine.
With the ending approaching with obvious implications, the stakes stay high. Then quick as can be, the match is concluded and the curtain falls. It catches us off guard, the ending, wrapping up so swiftly we barely had a moment to digest the conclusion. This is not a show to have high stakes investment in, but one to enter with low expectations and just roll with the shots fired, feeling the smooth effortless ride across The Nap. If you can do that, you’ll enjoy the game.