Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Lengthy but Loving

The Starry Messenger
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Starring Matthew Broderick, Stephanie Cannon, Kieran Culkin, Merwin Goldsmith, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Grant Shaud, J. Smith-Cameron, Missy Yager

Performances October 26-December 12, 2009
The New Group, The Acorn @ Theatre Row
410West 42nd Street

One of the many pleasures of Kenneth Lonergan’s plays is his affection for his characters, highlighted by an uncanny ear for dialogue that sounds natural and genuine no matter whose mouth it comes out of.

Talk is both the beauty and burden of his latest play, The Starry Messenger, a leisurely drama about ordinary people unwittingly finding their place in the cosmic order of things as they go about their everyday lives. It’s 1995 in Manhattan, where a reticent, conservative teacher, Mark, has a brief affair with a fiery, younger Puerto Rican nurse, Angela, which contrasts with his stale marriage to wife Anne and a teaching career in which he’s treading water (he teaches at City College and at the Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, which will itself be history in a few years).

The universe itself also contrasts with his characters’ quotidian existence, and Lonergan sympathetically burrows into their lives, allowing them to speak in their own voices. The Starry Messenger contains long scenes in which little happens but talking, and the conversations that Lonergan (who also directed) has written dignifies them, from their pauses to their stammers.

That said, at nearly three hours, The Starry Messenger suffers from its creator’s overexplicitness. Lonergan the director lets scenes meander, obviously because Lonergan the writer loves his characters and words and so is loath to cut anything. Take the charming scene between Mark and Angela on her sofa when, after making love, they discuss her Catholic belief in an afterlife and his atheism, as both relate to “feeling” the nearby presence of a dead loved one. Too bad that a soggy plot twist later arrives to test their opposing beliefs for mere purposes of dramatic irony.

Lonergan’s writing also has its poetic flights, such as Mark’s discussion of his virtues as a teacher with Ian, one of his brightest students, along with Mark’s own climactic soliloquy about the unknowable beauties of the universe that (almost) give the lie to his atheism. Sadly, an entire subplot about a sick old man, Norman, and his harried daughter Doris, at the hospital where Angela works is entirely expendable; but why Lonergan didn’t jettison it is obvious: it contains some of his loveliest and most heartbreaking dialogue.

Matthew Broderick, who has lately been in a rut of sameness onstage, finds many layers of meaning in Mark, a role written specifically by Lonergan for him. Catalina Sandino Moreno’s Angela has a sweetly beguiling presence that justifies Mark’s falling for her. J. Smith-Cameron shines in the play’s showiest role of the practical Anne, and Kieran Culkin—fast becoming an essential New York stage actor—does exceptional work as the student Ian and as the voice of Adam, Mark and Anne’s guitar-playing teenage son. Merwin Goldsmith humanizes Norman, who could have been merely a grouch, and Missy Yager makes a touching Doris. Grant Shaud gives the classroom scenes an amusing spark as Mark’s slightly nosy colleague Arnold; only Stephanie Cannon is unable to transcend the poorly-conceived role of Mrs. Pysner, perhaps the dimmest adult student in history.

Derek McLane’s all-purpose set beautifully contrasts workaday drabness with the awe-inspiring heavens, literalizing Lonergan’s metaphor without cheapening it. If only Lonergan corrected such bad grammar as “comprised of, “off of” and “hopefully,” and if only Mark didn’t call opera arias “songs” in the play’s least convincing scene, as he explains to Anne why he plays a certain piece of music. But these are minor blemishes in a warmhearted play that loves life unashamedly.
originally posted on

No comments: