With only a few exceptions, the attempted Yorkshire and wherever-else-they’re-supposed-to-be-from-in-Britain accents in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Richard Bean’s The Nap fail miserably, by which I mean (with a hard gaze) they are truly atrocious. This critic writes that as the son of a Yorkshireman and a Brit.
The accents of the American cast spring forth like malfunctioning bathroom taps: Perhaps that won’t matter to an American audience (although my theater buddy noticed the tonal weirdness if it). The attempt and fail made this critic wince almost to the point of standing up and pleading for the aural hell unfolding on stage to stop.
One voice started in America, briefly went to the East End of London, then Scotland, and settled on a kind of strangulated American-Mancunian. Another initially opted for Downton Abbey posh, segued to Dick Van Dyke (Mary Poppins edition), tried to go oop-North, and then devolved into an indecipherable growl.
This accent potpourri was off-putting enough, before we get to this strange play, itself an off-putting mash-up of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Bean’s deserved hit One Man, Two Guvnors (which came to Broadway, becoming a hit starring James Corden), and a Ray Cooney farce.
It is set in the world of snooker (another favorite game of this critic, who started playing it as a young boy) and begins in the knackered confines of a snooker room of a Royal British Legion club in Sheffield, South Yorkshire.
The “nap” on a snooker table is the bunching of fibers running against the smooth direction of the baize, which can affect the speed and direction of the balls. And so, I guess, the play seeks to animate humorously the characters and activities around the game upsetting its smooth running; these are the non-diamonds in snooker’s rough.
The choice of city is significant. In this dingy room, our hero, Dylan Spokes, is practicing before trying to win the World Snooker Championship at Sheffield’s famous Crucible Theatre. There, in the 1980s, one of the most famous snooker matches of all time took place, the World Snooker Championship Final between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor, which went to 17 frames all, and in the match-deciding final 35th frame, the game went down to the final black, earning the match’s nickname of the Black Ball Final.
Taylor, and his huge eyeglasses, won in a match watched by more than 18 million Brits. The game doesn’t enjoy that TV popularity now, but the World Championships are still staged in Sheffield (and have been since 1977; the event is worth a reported $6.6 million to the city itself). When it premiered in Britain in 2016, The Nap was also staged at the Crucible.
There is a brief summary of snooker rules in the play; necessary, as the game never took off in America as it did in Britain. Sadly, the full-length table (for a snooker fan like myself, that delicious green baize is so near yet so far) is only used twice in the play.
Is it like pool? I was asked before the play. Well, yes-ish, but mainly no. The idea of snooker: Both players are aiming to pot the same balls, not two sets of different ones. Pot all the reds first, after each red pot a color.
The reds stay in the pocket; the colors re-emerge from the table pockets after each pot. When there are no more reds, work your way through the colors until you end up with the black. The maximum break (uninterrupted play) in snooker is 147, potting a black after every red ball, and then all the colors in order.
You can accrue extra points by "snookering" your opponent, obstructing their progress to hit their target ball by placing the white cue ball behind other balls. If your opponent fails to swerve or bounce their ball off a cushion and hit its desired target, you score an extra four points.
This is less a play about the game and more a woolly tale of match fixing (which has become part of the contemporary game) and shady foreign syndicates.
The target of it all is poor Dylan, upstanding, handsome, and the only sane and level person on stage (and, in the handsome and frazzled Ben Schnetzer, the best actor in the production), as he heads to the big final, and with a threat to throw a frame of it or else.
Everyone apart from Dylan is a cartoon version of an existing cartoon stereotype: his dad (John Ellison Conlee) is a gravelly voiced, ponderous loafer, his mother (Johanna Day) is a stereotypical Northern “tart” (all tight dresses, carelessness, and venality).
Dylan has a colorfully suited manager (Gordon Moore), shiftily on the phone to foreign lands. The two cops who come to investigate matters are comically inept. A fair few of these characters are not who they seem. This, sadly, doesn’t add to them dramatically.
The Nap’s chief antagonist is a transgender gangster named Waxy Bush (haha, not) played by trans actor and activist Alexandra Billings. The script includes phrasing like “when she was a man” and “sex change,” and Waxy’s gender identity, if not the butt of jokes, still seems like an exploitatively conceived cul-de-sac.
The play snickers to itself about it. Her lack of a hand and her malapropisms (many, relentless, ultimately exhausting) are seen as jokes in themselves. Yes, Waxy is strong and assertive, but she also seemed (to me at least) an insultingly drawn, all too familiar fictional trans psychopath.
But she is not alone struggling in the uneven comic folds of The Nap. The characters are so broadly drawn or hapless that you can’t root for them, you can’t dislike them, you don’t really know them; the plot merely drags them through multiple complications from point A to a kind of incomplete point R. The play’s romantic denouement makes as little sense as its dramatic one, because the coupling itself makes little sense.
If this critic’s body and mind were wracked with a thousand shades of cringe, it recovered slightly with the best bits of The Nap, and for a snooker fan, this almost made the evening bearable: the playing of actual snooker.
At these moments the stage opens up to evoke the Crucible itself. We see the snooker table in full on a screen above the stage, as Dylan and a professional player (Ahmed Aly Elsayed, playing the roles of Dylan’s two opponents) take up cues.
It’s lovely to see a game unfold, even if the slices of match we see are pre-plotted. There is still an apparent element of risk if Dylan doesn’t pot the balls he’s supposed to—which would be fairly impossible in the final game, as the colored balls are placed dead over the pockets.
These briefly played matches give The Nap its only sense of dramatic frisson, and at least inspired me after this misfiring play to go straight home to watch what had been committed to YouTube of that astonishing Taylor-Davis match of 1985.
The Nap is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York City. Booking to Nov. 11.