This week, the nation’s foremost con artist, Donald J. Trump, blasted the Democratic Party’s attempt to sink Brett Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS nomination as a “con job.” And just today, the New Yorker’s online “Sunday Archive” headlined its anthology of “grifts, cons, and rackets” as “Schemes, Frauds, and Swindles.”
What all this has to do with the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Richard Bean’s (One Man, Two Guvnors) fitfully entertaining British farce, The Nap, which opened a few days ago at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is not for me to divulge. But it does seem there’s something cooking in the zeitgeist.
The Nap refers to the felt covering on a snooker table, snooker being a pool-like game, created in 19th-century India by British army officers, and widely popular in Great Britain. A large snooker table dominates the stage during those scenes set at a British Legion Snooker Room and those at a Sheffield, Yorkshire, venue where the World Snooker Championship is played out and televised for an audience of over 20 million.
|Max Gordon Moore, John Ellison Conlee. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As Dylan Spokes (Ben Schnetzer), the handsome, working-class, vegetarian lad from Sheffield, who will be competing for the championship, explains: “Playing with the nap, the ball will run straight with the natural line. Playing against the nap, the ball can deviate and drift off line. I play straight.” This, in a sense, is the play’s theme as Dylan, who honors the god of snooker, gets tangled up with a shady bunch who have another sort of snookering on their minds.
Occasionally reminiscent of a Joe Orton or Martin McDonough black comedy, The Nap, which premiered in 2016 at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre (where the World Snooker Championships are actually held), centers on Dylan’s preparation for the upcoming championship series.
Surrounding him is a rogue’s gallery of colorfully cartoonish characters: his former drug-dealing, bank-robbing dad, Bobby Spokes (John Ellison Conlee), who offers coaching advice; his flashy manager, Tony DanLino (Max Gordon Moore), who takes 20 percent of Dylan’s winnings, plus tax; Mohammed Butt (Bhavesh Patel), claiming to be a security agent needing to confirm Dylan’s integrity via a urine sample; and Eleanor Lavery (Heather Lind), a gorgeously sexy female copper concerned about possible match-fixing.
|Ben Schnetzer, Heather Lind. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Then there are Stella Spokes (Johanna Day), Dylan’s blowzy, boozy, bottle blonde mother, separated from Bobby; Danny Killeen (Thomas Jay Ryan), Stella’s sleazy, deodorant-avoiding, Irish-accented boyfriend; and the comic pièce de résistance, Waxy Bush (Alexandra Billings), a heavily made-up, white-suited, transgender woman gangster, with a prosthetic arm, who gets laughs by the tried and true (but overdone here) means of ridiculous malapropisms. One of the better ones goes: “Someone been making allegations? Bobby, are you one the allegators?”
|Max Gordon Moore, Johanna Day, Alexandra Billings. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Waxy, who’s been sponsoring Dylan, wants him to repay the boatload of money he owes her by throwing a frame in his championship game, enabling her to place a big bet based on his tanking. This or-else demand tests Dylan’s moral fortitude while setting up a series of comical complications, some of them enacted in a hotel room and Waxy’s tacky country house.
|Ben Schnetzer, Johanna Day. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There are also a couple of effectively staged snooker sequences presented—along with dryly satirical broadcast commentary—via a huge overhead TV screen showing in live time all the shots being made by Dylan (Schnetzer trained diligently for these) against two wordless competitors (played by US National Snooker champ Ahmed Aly Elsayed). The outcome of the final match is left open, so the ending can vary depending on what happens at a particular performance. These scenes, however carefully prepared, are nonetheless the production’s most riveting.
|Max Gordon Moore, Johanna Day, Thomas Jay Ryan, Alexandra Billings. Photo: Joan Marcus.
David Rockwell, flying and sliding his substantial-looking sets up and down, in and out, Justin Townsend, providing perfect lighting, and Kaye Voyce, dressing everyone convincingly, do their best on the visual side. Director Daniel Sullivan, using a mostly American cast speaking with generally reasonable facsimiles of Yorkshire accents, holds the pacing back too much, and the humor always seems bubbling just beneath the surface. It breaks through too rarely, though, to make The Nap as satisfyingly funny as it keeps promising to be.
The best comical moments come when Bobby struggles to cite a forgotten movie title, throwing out one half-remembered hint after another as his listeners eagerly try to connect the dots. But, like Waxy’s mangled vocabulary, or her double entendre name, these bits tend to use a hammer to bang in a comical thumbtack.
|Ahmed Aly Elsayed, Ethan Hova, Ben Schnetzer. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Schnetzer’s credible presence helps keep Bean’s don’t-trust-what-you-see plot (redolent of The Sting) from losing too much contact with reality, and there are good turns by several others, especially Conlee and Billings. However, when a game of snooker becomes a play’s most gripping part, it’s hard for an audience not to feel it’s been snookered.
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th St., NYC
Through November 11