Get us in your inbox


Life of Pi

  • Theater, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Hiran Abeysekera in Life of Pi
Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman Life of Pi

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

A visually stunning adaptation of Yann Martel's novel washes over the Broadway stage.

Broadway review by Adam Feldman 

Some plays offer a slice of life; Life of Pi is a wedge of fantasy. Adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti from Yann Martel’s bestselling 2001 novel, which also inspired a 2012 film by Ang Lee, this British import has been mounted to spectacular effect. Its sea-tossed story—about a shipwrecked Indian teenager named Pi (Hiran Abeysekera) who spends hundreds of days afloat in the Pacific in the company of a Bengal tiger—demands imagination, and director Max Webster provides it in abundance. Animal puppetry, lights, action, music and sound flood the theater, especially in the show’s second half; stage magic crashes out then gently recedes, tugging us into its currents. 

The glory of this creation is the tiger, of course, whose comical name, Richard Parker—the result of a bureaucratic mix-up with its hunter—represents one of Life of Pi’s running themes: the thinness of the line between man from beast, especially when survival is at stake. It takes a team of eight human puppeteers, alternating duties, to bring Richard Parker to theatrical life as the great cat prowls, shudders, leaps and purrs. But Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes’s sensitively articulated puppet designs do not end there: The production’s menagerie also includes a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a turtle; for larger groups of animals, swarms of actors wave butterfly poles and fish sticks. 

Life of Pi | Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

The result is something like children’s theater for adults. Actual kids may be upset by the horrors that beset Pi on the traumatic journey from his hometown of Pondicherry in the 1970s—accompanied at first by his zookeeper father (Rajesh Bose), his protective mother (Mahira Kakkar) and his brainy sister (Sonya Venugopal)—to a doomed cargo ship, a hellish lifeboat, a paradisal island and finally the western coast of Mexico. But grown-ups will marvel at Tim Hatley’s sets and costumes, Andrzej Goulding’s video and animation, Tim Lutkin’s lighting and Carolyn Downing’s sound design. The production is often beautiful, especially when seen from above. (Because the floor is featured prominently, this is the rare Broadway show that is better experienced from the mezzanine than the orchestra.) 

But if Life of Pi is transporting, where does it leave you? “My story will make you believe in God,” promises Pi, and which God he means seems hardly to matter. (His own precocious religious beliefs incorporate elements of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.) What he and his story offer, by the end, are not an argument for belief so much as for a deliberate suspension of disbelief. In a way, that is what makes Life of Pi work as theater, a form in which such suspension is all but required. But Martel’s book isn’t just a fantastical tale of adventure at sea. It also aspires to philosophical depth; it tries to shine light on ideas through language. That is another area where theater can excel, and it is where Chakrabarti’s adaptation disappoints. 

Life of Pi | Photograph: Courtesy Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

Both the novel and the play use framing devices, but whereas Martel’s features a writer who meets the adult Pi in Canada, Chakrabarti moves the action to a Mexican hospital room shortly after Pi’s landing, where he is questioned by a Japanese insurance rep (Daisuke Tsuji) and a Canadian diplomat (Kirstin Louie). It’s not just that these scenes, with their good-cop/bad-cop characters and unconvincing “ticking clock” device (“This case will close in three days. I have to know what happened. Everyone is waiting for this report!”), seem less realistic than the wild escapades they introduce and interrupt. It’s also that this young Pi, still reeling from his experience, cannot have any analytical distance from it; perhaps that is why so much of what he says has been flattened into platitudes (“Have you noticed the heavens are miraculous?”). 

The impressive Abeysekera, who created the role of Pi in the West End, is a physically and emotionally agile actor, and his maturity—he is twice Pi’s age—helps give the character some of the gravitas missing from the script. But he has only so much to work with. In this version, Pi seems not just irrational (as his name promises) but downright simple; he doesn’t even read the lifeboat’s survival manual until 30 days into his trip. 

To keep the production bobbing, writing has been bailed. “The reason death sticks so closely to life isn't biological necessity—it's envy,” muses the Pi of the book. “Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud." The Pi of the play, by contrast, says: “Death envies life because life is so beautiful.” Webster’s stagecraft is dazzling, but don’t expect Life of Pi to make you believe in God. It will make you believe in puppet shows, and that may be enough.

Life of Pi. Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (Broadway). By Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Max Webster. With Hiran Abeysekera. Running time: 2hrs 5mins. One intermission.

Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam
Follow Time Out Theater on Twitter: @TimeOutTheater
Keep up with the latest news and reviews on our Time Out Theater Facebook page 

Life of Pi | Photograph: Courtesy Johan Persson

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman


Event website:
You may also like
You may also like