British plays may be as abundant on Broadway as mushrooms in a rain-soaked forest, but “The Nap,” by Richard Bean, may seem exotic even to the most obsessive theatrical Anglophile. This new comedy by the author of the celebrated “One Man, Two Guvnors” takes place in the world of professional snooker, a sport that makes the once-arcane curling seem about as familiar as football — American football, that is.
In brief, snooker is a form of billiards played on a larger table and with a more complex set of rules for scoring. A smidgen of interest in the game might be helpful for enjoyment of the play, but it’s not precisely necessary. For while those expecting a rollicking sequel to “One Man” may go away feeling, well, snookered, “The Nap” has enough earthily funny dialogue, vibrant comic characters and twisty plotting to keep a steady grip on our attention.
We glean most of the game’s basics in the play’s first scene, set in a grimy snooker hall in Sheffield, the English city where the annual world championships are about to be played. Dylan Spokes (Ben Schnetzer), man-bun dangling atop his head, is practicing his game under the supervision of his father, Bobby (John Ellison Conlee), a former player whose life unraveled after he became involved in drug-dealing and, eventually, bank robbery.
Bobby needles Dylan for his New Age ways — he’s a vegetarian and a quasi-Buddhist — but has come to encourage him as he preps for the big tournament. In Brussels, Dylan recently beat a Thai player ranked far above him, and his father is convinced he has a real shot at the title.
But that win has caught the attention of the game’s professional guardians: Two representatives from the association dedicated to protecting the game from corruption — namely match-fixing at the behest of gambling syndicates — come calling. Mohammad Butt (Bhavesh Patel) and Eleanor Lavery (Heather Lind) are curious about massive bets placed s on one “frame” — or game — in the match Dylan won against his Thai opponent. What befuddles Dylan, and them, is that the money was all placed on Dylan to lose the frame — but he won it. So how could he be guilty of throwing it for money?
This extended first scene, which includes some lofty philosophizing from Dylan about his dedication to the game (“Snooker is the result of a century of human negotiation, a celebration of cooperation and civilization”) as well as contrastingly sardonic commentary from his father (“This game is a way for working class lads who were shit at school to make some money”) may require some patience. It takes some time for Bean to bring the rest of the play’s colorful array of characters onstage.
These include Dylan’s mother and Bobby’s ex-wife Stella (Johanna Day), who brings along her Irish boyfriend Danny Killeen (Thomas Jay Ryan); Dylan’s oily manager Tony (Max Gordon Moore); and Dylan’s unofficial sponsor, Waxy Bush (Alexandra Billings), a transgender businesswoman with a shady reputation who has poured lots of money into Dylan’s career, and is anxious to see a return on her investment.
Our patience is (mostly) rewarded by the pungently color-saturated performances of the ensemble. Although at times their accents range up and down the British Isles — and classes — for the most part the all-American cast manages with a neat precision to nail the voices and the assorted eccentricities of their characters.
A gleaming standout is Billings, familiar to fans of the show “Transparent,” who brings a delectable seedy glamour, trimmed with hints of smiling menace, to her role as the imperious Waxy. As the plot moves forward, she comes to play a twisty role in the proceedings, and Billings manages the smooth feat of making Waxy’s malapropisms and language-mangling (she has a “peanut analogy”) funnier than they have any right to be. (Waxy’s wooden arm, meanwhile, seems a weirdly unnecessary adornment, used for a laugh or two and then ignored.)
Conlee is terrific as Bobby, who shrugs off his embarrassing past, landing deadpan zingers with easy aplomb. Conlee also brings some muscular energy to the proceedings in a couple of passages that devolve into loony games of quasi-charades, as Bobby attempts to make a point by bringing up movies whose names he cannot recall.
The veteran Day, wearing what appears to be the shorn pelt of a llama piled carelessly atop her head, is barely recognizable as the slatternly Stella, whose reasons for urging Dylan to make nice with the powerful Waxy are not entirely maternal. And Moore, clad in suits that manage to be garish despite being pastel-colored, oozes opportunistic smarm from every polyester pore.
Although the plot contains a jolting surprise, in contrast to the breakneck farcical momentum of “One Man,” the play draws its appeal primarily from Bean’s tart comic dialogue and the garish charms of the characters as embodied by the superb cast. The director Daniel Sullivan, a specialist in classic plays, may not be known for knockabout comedy — and the naturalistic pacing could profitably be given a galvanizing jolt or two — but he draws out the play’s more muted strengths with a deft hand.
There’s little he can do with a perfunctory subplot involving a budding romance between Dylan and Eleanor, which dangles from the play like an overextended afterthought. But to his credit, the excellent Schnetzer, in the central role of Dylan, imbues his good-hearted character with enough nuance — ambition mixed with sensitivity, obsessive dedication to the game in danger of being corrupted by a tortured relationship to his ne’er-done-well parents — that we can overlook some of the more dubious (or outlandish) byways.
The play’s appeal is also juiced by two portions of frames of snooker that are actually played live, with a screen descending to hang above the stage to show us how the game unfolds. (The play’s title, by the way, refers to the texture of the green baize on the table, which can either smooth or derail a player’s shot, depending on the direction.)
The second and culminating frame, depicting Dylan facing down an opponent in the championship match, has an undetermined ending, meaning the play has two possible resolutions, depending on how Schnetzer’s Dylan and his opponent (Ahmed Aly Elsayad, an actual snooker champion) fare.
To suggest that you’ll be gripping the edge of your seat might be overstating the case, but thanks in no small part to Schnetzer’s immensely winning performance, you may find yourself watching the balls career around the green with surprising interest, even if you still can’t make head or tails of the darn game.
“The Nap” opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Thurs., Sept. 27, 2018.
Creative: Written by Richard Bean; Original Music by Lindsay Jones; Directed by Daniel Sullivan; Scenic Design by David Rockwell; Costume Design by Kaye Voyce; Lighting Design by Justin Townsend; Sound Design by Lindsay Jones.
Producers: Manhattan Theatre Club.
Cast: Alexandra Billings, John Ellison Conlee, Johanna Day, Ahmed Aly Elsayed, Ethan Hova, Heather Lind, Max Gordon Moore, Bhavesh Patel, Thomas Jay Ryan, Ben Schnetzer, John Wojda.