It may seem necessary, before an American audience, to provide a primer on snooker, that English variant of billiards. But the unseen, bone-dry play-by-play snooker announcers in Richard Bean’s charming new comedy about the sport, The Nap, which opened Thursday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, are reluctant to expend the effort.
One begrudgingly explains a few elements of the game, in an Alan Rickman-adjacent whine, “if you’re watching on the Internet in Antarctica,” or “for those on a canoe in Tahiti.” In other words, let’s assume we know the basics, and get on with the fun bits.
Bean wrote the masterful 2012 comedy One Man, Two Guvnors. While not its equal, The Nap, presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club, is well-constructed and delightfully discursive. This lark of a crime comedy is about illicit betting on snooker, which is played live on stage through a good stretch of the second act. It’s an energizing way to break down the fourth wall (a favorite pastime of Bean’s), and emblematic of the balance of Live Theater (with a capital L-T) with old-fashioned farce that ultimately make this play, which initially seems contrived, fully satisfying.
Our hero is Dylan Spokes (Ben Schnetzer), 107th-ranked snooker player in the world, who is about to compete in the World Championship. It’s held this year in his hometown of Sheffield, Yorkshire, also the location of the play’s 2016 premiere. (There are some delectable Northern English accents, impressively rendered by the all-American cast.)
In this perpetually-fixed sport, Dylan’s a Boy Scout (or the British equivalent), and refuses to take a fall, no matter what the inducements. But things get complicated with the entry of the transgender gangster Waxy Bush (Alexandra Billings, trans herself, and playing a respectfully written role). And that copper from the National Crime Agency, Eleanor Lavery (Heather Lind), here to make sure competition’s on the square, may not be all she seems.
The set-up occasionally feels awkward but is fully redeemed by a twist in the second act I won’t give away. In any case, it’s not the plot that makes The Nap worthwhile but the room it gives its cheerfully up-for-it actors, ably guided by director Daniel Sullivan.
The star is John Ellison Conlee, as Dylan’s father, Bobby, a Yorkshire armchair philosopher whose best one-liners have a perfect comic simplicity. (Musing about an old friend: “Christianity… It was like a fucking religion to him.”) Bobby’s 55, with the accordant spells of forgetfulness, and occasionally loses the names of films and actors; the dialogic trips he takes to remember them, with the help of the wonderfully eccentric Max Gordon Moore as Dylan’s manager, are theatrical Nirvana.
Some stretches are a little less than that. Billings has trouble selling her character’s trademark malapropisms, which aren’t particularly funny. Misquoting Macbeth as “the last syllabus of recorded time” isn’t up to Bean’s usual sterling standards.
The play has two endings, depending on which way the billiards ball bounces. The denouement I saw is pat, surprisingly so, given the complications Bean introduces along the way. Not that it matters. From scene one, it’s clear that Sullivan and Bean’s objective is to deliver light comedy the way it isn’t done anymore. And in this, they entirely succeed.