Eye-popping effects make a splash on Broadway

A pair of extraordinary elements make the new spectacle show “Life of Pi” seaworthy: stunning projections, and a better-than-necessary lead performance from the sensational Hiran Abeysekera.

Theater review

2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission. At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W 45th Street.

Working in tandem during the second act, when teenage Pi is adrift in the ocean with only dangerous zoo animals to keep him company, those fantastical images and Abeysekera’s boisterous energy create moment after moment of theatrical magic. 

They are sequences of pure action and ingenuity in director Max Webster’s production that do not rely on dialogue or plot to thrill us, only sheer emotion and awe. Not unlike an “Avatar” film

However, not all of “Pi,” which opened Thursday night on Broadway, packs that same stirring visual punch.

The play — adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti from Yann Martel’s novel, previously turned into Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning film — starts off as a fairly straightforward, wonkily written drama that takes a while to kick in. 

Actor Hiran Abeysekera and stunning projections make for a formidable duo in Broadway's "Life of Pi."
Actor Hiran Abeysekera and stunning projections make a formidable duo in Broadway’s “Life of Pi.”
Evan Zimmerman

Shy Pi (Abeysekera), hiding under a hospital bed in Mexico, tells investigators how his childhood in Pondicherry, India, led to him being the sole survivor of a tragic shipwreck.

On one hand, the first half of Act One could be called “The Boring Bit Before the Boat,” hampered by so-so ensemble acting and hastily shot-off expository dialogue.

On the other hand, these early scenes introduce the main reason for the story’s existence: religion. 

Precocious Pi (short for the French word “piscine,” meaning “pool”) confuses his parents and the community when he attends a Christian church, a Muslim mosque and a Hindu temple all on a single Friday and concludes each is telling a version of the same story. 

Of course, by the time we’re watching a Bengal tiger dramatically running on water, we’ve forgotten the prayer part.

Before Pi is adrift at sea, he starts out in Pondicherry, India.
Before Pi is adrift at sea, he starts out in Pondicherry, India.
Evan Zimmerman

Fearsome tiger Richard Parker is, like all the animals in "Life of Pi," a detailed puppet.
Fearsome tiger Richard Parker is, like all the animals in “Life of Pi,” a detailed puppet.

Pi’s pop owns a zoo, which is where we first meet the ferocious tiger that is amusingly called Richard Parker.

All of the puppets, by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, have the attractive, island-merchant look of painted driftwood, but fall short of being believable. 

While the puppetry is doubtlessly well done, my mind kept wandering to 2011’s “War Horse,” another London import whose manipulated equines were jaw-dropping and lovable characters in their own right. The “Pi”-pets are lovely, too, just not a wow.

During a period of political unrest in India, Pi, his family and their animals leave for Canada aboard a ship — alongside a vulgar French cook and rowdy sailors.

When they’re caught in a storm and the ship sinks, only Pi survives, floating in a lifeboat with an orangutan named Orange Juice and snarling Richard Parker.

Hiran Abeysekera makes an impressive Broadway debut as the precocious survivor Pi.
Hiran Abeysekera makes an impressive Broadway debut as the precocious survivor Pi.
Evan Zimmerman

His scrappy vessel impressively pops out of the stage (the set is by Tim Hatley) and is surrounded by Andrzej Goulding’s crisp videos of idyllic blue water.

Too often in stage plays projections merely distract from flesh-and-blood actors, but Goulding’s marry perfectly with Hatley’s set and Abeysekera’s playfulness. 

(With images projected straight onto the stage, “Life of Pi” is best seen and appreciated from the mezzanine.)   

Pi fights like hell to survive, despite starvation, dehydration, delusions and, you know, that tiger over there.

Abeysekera’s appeal really is as unlimited as 3.14159. The actor, making his Broadway debut, has the quick curiosity of a youngster, but incongruously speaks in a sonorous voice that can switch from profound to hilarious with the speed of a Bengal tiger.

Even surrounded by a sea of tech, puppets and hydraulics, he has total command of the stage.

That’s vital. After all, it’s not called “Life of Projector.”

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