In Andrew Weems' new show, motion is the human condition.
Namaste Man — his one-man play receiving its world premiere at the Intiman Theatre in a staging directed by Bartlett Sher — involves journeying to distant places. But the most impressive voyage it charts is the one through time as Weems revisits long-buried but potent fragments of memories from his boyhood. Triggered by his present-day experiences as an actor struggling in New York, they transport him as fast as his synapses can fire.
Weems has previously appeared at Intiman in his better-known guise as an actor (playing Shaw's mock-heroic soldier Sergius in Arms and the Man and the unhappy brother to Chekhov's Three Sisters). But in Namaste Man Weems sets himself the formidable challenge of holding our attention through more than 90 intermissionless minutes while soloing as composite playwright/performer. He mostly succeeds, although the connective tissue Weems introduces feels occasionally forced; by the final sections, a certain entropy begins to creep in. You miss the dexterity with which Spalding Gray could make his nested stories dovetail back into the main thread with the virtuosity of a Rossini finale.
Still, Weems channels the kind of spell-casting authority that is at the root of all great storytelling. His narrative — made of twists, curves, and bends as countless as a mountain highway's — may not always deliver an effective payoff, but in the process he assumes the persona of a latter-day rhapsode.
The word "namaste" is borrowed from a colloquial Nepali greeting, which can serve equally as "hello" or "goodbye." It refers to the constant, unpredictable parade of new faces and experiences that Weems knew as the son of a State Department civil servant. Clearly he has inherited the restlessness of his father, Bill, who opted to exchange a comfy stateside career as an engineer for the nomadic life of foreign postings. "I'm not from anywhere," Bill proudly declares. "I'm a citizen of the world."
And so Weems spent his childhood on the move, with the suburbs of Washington, D.C. becoming as exotic as any of the far-flung locales across the globe he temporarily called home. The play shuttles back and forth between his current home base in Manhattan, where he's a frustrated, early-middle-aged actor, and these long-forgotten sojourns — in particular his coming of age in the early Ã¢'ê¬Ë70s while the family lived in Kathmandu. Both places cause him to experiences a sense of disorienting loss. In unexpected ways, these two poles become mirror images as Weems rediscovers the passions and observational instincts that led him to his career choice. It was against the backdrop of the Himalayas' godlike peaks that they first began to flower.
If evocative details earned you frequent flyer miles, Weems would be able to bank on a few more circumnavigations. Namaste Man draws on a sequence of typical childhood rituals — holiday celebrations, father-son talks, a first crush — to tell a story that is utterly, quirkily fresh and full of pretension-busting hilarity. Even illness offers its surreal perspective: Weems refers to a bout of fever-induced hallucinations as "tripping on hepatitis." Despite the show's epic sprawl, it's essentially a crazy quilt made up of interwoven miniatures. Most memorable are the episodes recounting a Thanksgiving dinner of fellow exiles (including a pair of pothead hipsters who are the spitting image of Simon and Garfunkel) and Weems' theatrical rite of passage acting in a Kathmandu production of A Thousand Clowns, directed by a hammy amateur thespian from India.
In fact, Weems' virtuoso performance — or, more precisely, performances, as he conjures some 40 well-differentiated roles — alone makes Namaste Man worth the price of admission. He easily switches back and forth between adult lenses and a child's open-ended point of view. He characterizes his mother, a stoic New Englander named Barbara but inexplicably called Mabel by the kids, with particular warmth and poignancy (crooning the Rat Pack hits she used to love listening to) yet somehow avoids being sentimental. Weems even evokes a host of animals, from the "barking" rats he hears in his New York walls to a bull intruding on the family yard and a rhesus monkey accompanying a schoolmate to class. He takes a bemusedly pantheistic view of his surroundings, in which "even dung sounds holy."
Yet Weems also thwarts expectations. If the story he embarks on in recalling his Nepali childhood seems to promise an eventual moment of spiritual enlightenment, Weems goes to lengths to demythologize romantic notions of the journey eastward (the hippies who have traveled to Nepal in pursuit thereof turn out to be a sorry bunch). Namaste Man discards a touristic view of acquired spiritual treasures and experiences; side by side with his Proustian conjuring Weems considers the aura of loss that is the source of its potency, like the impending final performance of a theatrical production which is followed by striking the stage.
Sher's direction is both elegant and unfussy — further proof of his versatility across an enormous range of styles and genres. All the production elements are in fact beautifully integrated. Elizabeth Caitlin Ward's seemingly random jumble of candles, prayer flags, rolling oranges, and metal shed sidings turns out to perfectly match Weems' ever-shifting narrative. The crepuscular lighting by Greg Sullivan subtly shifts to reveal a snow-capped mountain backdrop, while Peter John Still's sound design avoids overdoing the mood setting.
One of the play's more memorable characters — he makes his home in "the only telephone booth in the Kingdom of Nepal" — has to rely on a severely limited form of locomotion. In Namaste Man, even death doesn't seem to terminate our continual state of motion, of never-ending flux: Weems recalls swimming as a child in a tributary to the Ganges and being brushed by a corpse floating by. But if we can't step into the same river twice, Weems' stream of consciousness offers the compensations of his lively art.