Man from Nebraska
Written by Tracy Letts; directed by David Cromer
Performances through March 26, 2017
Second Stage Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY
|Reed Birney and Heidi Armbruster in Man from Nebraska (photo: Joan Marcus)|
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for his towering psychological drama August: Osage County, playwright Tracy Letts writes about extremes in behavior, as an early play of his, Man from Nebraska—belatedly making its New York premiere, long after Killer Joe, Bug, August and Superior Donuts did—fitfully demonstrates.
Letts’s protagonist, Ken Carpenter, is a 57-year-old Baptist living in Omaha with his beloved wife Nancy. The play begins with the couple going through a typical day together: driving to church, sitting at services singing a hymn and listening to a sermon, going to a local place to eat, and visiting Ken’s mother in an assisted living facility. Then, after they turn out the lights for the night, Ken gets out of bed and goes to the bathroom, where he begins weeping uncontrollably. When Nancy awakens and asks what’s the matter, he drops a bombshell: “I don’t think there’s a God. I don’t believe in Him any more.”
After that statement, nothing is the same again. Nancy can’t understand, their cynical daughter Ashley thinks he’s taken leave of his senses, and Reverend Todd, who provides him with some clichéd bromides, tells him to get away for awhile: which Ken actually does, flying to London for the first time in decades since he was there briefly while in the Air Force. Leaving Nebraska loosens him up, of course: he meets Pat, a flirty vivacious businesswoman, on the flight over and talks so insistently with Tamyra, a young bartender at his hotel, that she makes him an alcoholic drink—he’s pretty much a teetotaler—which he loves so much that he gets smashingly drunk.
This leads to (for Ken) aberrant behavior: being seduced by Pat (who turns out to be a sex freak, natch), becoming friends with Tamyra and her artist roommate Harry, who give Ken a pep pill which makes him an uninhibited dancer and—apparently—a game sculptor, which Harry trains him as with Tamyra as their model in their small flat. Eventually—after hearing bad news about his aged mother—Ken returns home to make amends with God and Nancy.
Letts can be incisive when he shows how a devout man can suddenly, seemingly inexplicably decide that he no longer believes, skillfully charting his confusions, self-doubts and self-recriminations. But Ken’s linear progression from believer to unbeliever and back is charted all too predictably; it may be that Letts wants it to remain mysterious—after all, faith is beyond any intellectual reasoning—but by letting Ken have the time of his life partying it up, fooling around and even becoming an artist of sorts while in London is a little too much on the side of having his cake and eating it too, especially when he hotfoots it back home at the first sign of life’s adversity.
Actually, Nancy becomes the more interesting character after Ken leaves for London: first she’s in denial, waiting for him to return, then she begins falling into a depression until she slowly starts coming out of her shell, even if it’s initially to fend off the bumbling but earnest advances of Reverend Todd’s 75-year-old father Bud, who enjoys Outback Steakhouse, mindless shows on TV and making crude remarks. Nancy seems to grow more than our man from Nebraska, but it’s not a given that the playwright knows this.
As sensitively staged by David Cromer and acted with by a nuanced and penetrating cast led by Reed Birney, who makes Ken a persuasive bundle of contradictions—both secular and spiritual—and by Annette O’Toole as Nancy, whose transition from dutiful to less dutiful wife is sympathetically drawn. Special mention must go to Heidi Armbruster, who embodies Pat, conceived as an unconvincing character, with a bruised honesty that gets to the heart of Lett’s often strained and manipulative exploration of the spirit.