Thursday, March 31, 2016

Off-Broadway Reviews—Kenneth Lonergan's 'Hold on to Me Darling' & Richard Nelson's 'Hungry'

Hold on to Me Darling
Written by Kenneth Lonergan; directed by Neil Pepe
Performances through April 17, 2016
Atlantic Theater, 320 West 20th Street, Brooklyn, NY

Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Performances through April 3, 2016
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY

Kenneth Lonergan and Richard Nelson write plays which ring true with the messiness of real life, however diffuse or undramatic. Lonergan's unwieldy plays often bump up against melodrama or soap opera, with characters bordering caricature and realistic dialogue that rises to a sort of quotidian poetry that provide a fiery aliveness. Nelson has pared down his writing to the essence of drama: a group of people sitting around, talking about nothing—and everything—for 90 or so minutes, laying bare our shared humanity.

Adelaide Clemens and Timothy Olyphant in Hold on to Me Darling (photo: Doug Hamilton)

Lonergan's Hold on to Me Darling begins as a sort-of soap opera parody, as fantastically successful country crossover singer/movie star Strings McCrane struggles with the aftermath of his beloved mother's death: his impulsive decisions—from deciding to marry the lovely (and already married) Nancy, who gave him a massage in his hotel room, to sleeping with his distant cousin Essie after seeing her at the funeral, to quitting show biz to start a feed store with his brother Duke in their Tennessee hometown—mark someone who has never been able to deal with life on its own terms and has instead done what any multi-millionaire celebrity would: think only of himself.

For over two and a half hours, Lonergan allows his protagonist to careen wildly between sanctimony and satire, sometimes in the same scene. The biting dialogue, always Lonergan's strong suit, manages the seemingly impossible task of alternating between realism and ridiculous self-indulgence. But whatever is said, even Strings and Duke's amusing asides like "Jesus Christ in a downtown Memphis hair salon" or "Jesus Christ on the Tour de France," always sounds exactly right for whoever is speaking. Even the final scene, when Lonergan introduces a major character who was mentioned earlier, works handily, even while wearing its heart on its sleeve a bit too sincerely.

As Strings, Timothy Olyphant initially seems to be channeling an Elvis impersonator and Tim Robbins' colorful Nuke Laloosh in the movie Bull Durham: but even skating on the thin ice of caricature doesn't derail Oliphant's outsized but fully realized portrait. As the women in Strings' life, Jenn Lyon (Nancy) and Adelaide Clemens (Essie) are sympathetic and touchingly funny, C.J. Wilson makes an hilariously deadpan Duke, Keith Nobbs is amusingly harried as Strings' assistant Jimmy and Jonathan Hogan makes the most of his brief onstage time as Mitch.

The play's eight locations are astonishingly realized on Walter Spangler's brilliant revolving set, while Neil Pepe's direction is acutely in tune with Lonergan's off-kilter but penetrating observations on how persons interact while building or tearing down the walls pervading many relationships.

The cast of Hungry (photo: Joan Marcus)

Richard Nelson's Hungry begins a new cycle, The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family. On the heels of his Apple Family Plays, an extraordinary quartet of dramas that looked at one family, the new group of plays—of which Hungry is the first—can't hope to live up to such a high standard.

And indeed, though it is intelligent, humane and beautifully acted, Hungry marks a major playwright treading water, returning to a well that seems to be drying up. The Gabriel family of Rhinebeck, NY (where playwright Nelson lives) has gotten together after a memorial service for Thomas, famous writer and brother of George and Joyce, both visiting his home where his widowed third wife Mary lives. George's wife Hannah and Thomas's first wife Karin have also joined them, as well as their elderly mother Patricia. 

Nelson's observations are personal and often poignant, the brief discussion of politics is trenchant, and there is enough naturally arising humor to gloss over his creaky central conceit: that the entire 100-minute play takes place at the kitchen table with the women making dinner and dessert while discussing things both mundane and serious, including various states of hunger.

But Nelson remains an economical writer and director, and his ensemble—Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Maryann Plunkett, Jay O. Sanders and Amy Warren—is as unbeatable as the one in the earlier plays. (Sanders and Plunkett are the sole holdovers.) So, although Hungry leaves us hungry for more, I look forward to sampling the next two installments.

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