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'The Oldest Boy' theater review: Sarah Ruhl is golden

Sarah Ruhl (

Sarah Ruhl ("In the Next Room: or The Vibrator Play") explores the quandary when an American mother (Celia Keenan-Bolger, above) and a Tibetan-born husband have a son believed to be the reincarnation of a high Buddhist teacher, in "The Oldest Boy." Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Imagine one day finding a pair of Tibetan monks at your front door and being told that your three-year-old child is in fact the reincarnation of an important Buddhist teacher, and that they want to take the child away to India immediately for intensive spiritual training.

And not only that, there’s so much proof that you actually start to believe it yourself. The kid can even recognize his belongings from a lifetime ago.  

Such is the strange conflict behind Sarah Ruhl’s fanciful family drama “The Oldest Boy,” which is being produced Off-Broadway by Lincoln Center Theater.

Ruhl, who has become one of the most prominent contemporary American playwrights, has received much love from both critics and audiences for her whimsical sensibility, lyrical language and vulnerable characters, as seen in plays like “The Clean House” and “In the Next Room” (or The Vibrator Play).”

In Rebecca Taichman’s spare but elegant production, the child is portrayed via a life-size puppet operated by puppeteers dressed in black.

Celia Keenan-Bolger is wonderful as the boy’s mother, convincingly portraying her conflicted emotions and confusions without ever going over the top.

While the play loses steam by act two, it does present an unusual and touching scenario with cross-cultural currents.

You might consider it a gentle counterpart to “Disgraced,” the raging West-meets-Islam drama that was first produced by Lincoln Center Theater and recently transferred to Broadway.

If you go:  “The Oldest Boy” plays at Lincoln Center Theater through Dec. 28. Lincoln Center Plaza,


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