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A CurtainUp Review
The Starry Messenger
By Elyse Sommer
If only Lonergan had written a less overstuffed, overambitious and underwhelming play for his friend Broderick — one that would stay focused on a strong, single plot line and give Broderick a chance to move beyond the nerdy persona which, though it's served him well, has also straightjacketed him. The accountant who became Max Bialystock's co-producer was Broderick at his nerdy zenith. But Mark Williams, the nebbish middle aged man who's the starry messenger of this world premiere's title, neither sings, dances or charms and Broderick's portrayal, if not as completely out to lunch as in last year's Roundabouts revival of The Philanthrophist ( review ), is still disappointingly unanimated.
Mark's boyhood dreams of becoming an astronomer have fizzled into a career teaching astronomy in the basement of the Hayden Planetarium. If we're to go by his interaction with the only two students we meet, he's not even a particularly popular or effective teacher. Ian (Kieran Culkin) is an obnoxiously aggresive course taking junkie who, thanks to Culkin, has some amusing moments. Mrs. Pysner (Stephanie Cannon), is so dim-witted that you wonder why this course didn't have some sort of prerequisite to screen out hopeless cases like her. Her clueless questions each time the class meets (alas, all too often and repetitiously) is a running joke that quickly wears thin.
The Williams marriage and suburban life style is as lackluster as his career—not horrible, but hardly wonderful. In casting his wife, J. Smith-Cameron, as Mark's wife Anne, Lonergan has not done her any greater favor than Broderick. Fine actress though she is, Smith-Cameron is stuck in a thankless role. There's no chemistry between her and Broderick because there's little in their characters to light a spark or grab our interest or sympathy. Anne, at least, seems to have a better relationship with their teenaged son Adam (unseen but heard via Culkin's voice). One of the more likeable characters in the play is Arnold Samson (Grant Shaud), his more successful teaching colleague and supportive friend.
The Starry Messenger's big surprise is that Angela Vasquez (Catalina Sandino Moreno), an attractive and much younger (28 to his 46) single mother falls in love with the uncharismatic persona of this play's "hero." Coming from a tough background what attracts her to Mark is his courtesy and kindness to her young son so don't expect him to turn into a sexy seducer. It's up to Angela to make the first move and this holds true even for the one spontaneously impassioned scene.
Apparently aware that his script needed something besides Mark's newly discovered illicit passion and occasional excerpts from his beloved La Traviata, the playwright added a subplot about a cancer-stricken old man, Norman Ketterly (Merwin Goldsmith). The only connection between Norman's and Mark's story, is that Norman too is comforted by Angela— in this case as part of her job as a nurse in training at Sloan-Kettering. Though Goldsmith has some of the play's best lines, his talents are wasted on this role, as are those of Missy Yager who plays his daughter and frustrated primary caretaker.
The subject of the care and dying of our elderly population is certainly worth exploring, and Lonergan tackled this theme touchingly and dramatically in the Pulitzer Prize nominate The Waverly Gallery. Unfortunately, as part of this new play, the hospital scenes feel as if they were leftover pages from that fine and very superior play and rewritten to beef up The Starry Messenger. And as if the tacked on aging and dying subplot weren't enough, there's another one involving Angela and her son.
So far I've only talked about Lonergan the playwright. Alas, he's hardly more successful wearing his director's hat. Having been unable to make badly needed cuts in his script (Mark's final lecture/monologue is a particular case in point), he also directs at a largo rather than presto tempo. He's well served by Austin Switser's astral projections and Derek McLane's 4-in-one set (Angela's apartment, the Williams living room, the Hayden Planetarium classroom and Norman's hospital room). The fact that the Acorn's extremely wide stage always forces people sitting at either side to crane their necks when the action moves to the opposite side from where they're sitting can't be blamed on either the designer or director. However, Lonergan should have taken advantage of the fact that McLane's all-in-one set requires no intra-scene blackouts for prop switches. Instead the moves from one part of the set are, like everything else, in slow motion.
Mr. Lonergan does end his unconscionably long play with a bit of a twist. However, like Mark's classroom jokes it somehow lacks the needed bite even though it does hold out the possibility that Mark won't be done in by his midlife crisis. Here's hoping that this is more than a possibility for both Mark's creator and his interpreter.