Monday, March 13, 2017

It’s a Gray World: Man from Nebraska

Annette O'Toole and Reed Birney in Second Stage's production of Man from Nebraska. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Man from Nebraska by Tracy Letts (August: Osage County, Superior Donuts) – currently at New York's Second Stage Theatre – is the latest entry in the life-of-quiet-desperation sweepstakes, following closely on the heels of last season’s Tony Award-winning The Humans. The protagonist, Ken Carpenter (played by Reed Birney, star of The Humans), is a Lincoln insurance salesman approaching sixty – with two grown daughters and a mother (Kathleen Peirce) struggling with end-of-life issues – who gets out of bed in the middle of the night, panicked and weeping, because he’s lost his faith. (He’s a Baptist.) His wife Nancy (Annette O’Toole) is sympathetic but stymied, and his daughter Ashley (Annika Boras), who works with him, has no experience of her own to draw on when he tells her about his existential plight. Nancy asks their pastor (William Ragsdale) to talk to Ken, and though he comes across at first as a pleasant man with a cheerleader personality, he offers a suggestion that turns out to be profound for both his parishioners: he urges Ken to take a vacation alone. He travels to London, where he was stationed when he was in the military and of which he has fond memories, and though his crisis of faith leads him to question everything about himself and his past, he manages to makes friends there: Tamyra (Nana Mensah), the bartender at his Leicester Square hotel, and her flatmate Harry (Max Gordon Moore), a gay sculptor. Meanwhile his absence shakes up his wife, whose world is defined by him as much as his has always been defined by his belief in God.

I had more patience for these plays – and movies – when I was a young man; now they make me restless. Without a little poetry and originality, snapshots of the lives of ordinary men and women in despair can be awfully drab. My problem with The Humans and Stephen Karam’s previous play, Sons of the Prophet, was that they presented such a lengthy series of calamities that after a while I stopped believing in them altogether. Man from Nebraska isn’t excessive in that way, but it is unrelenting, and despite the excellent performances by Birney and O’Toole and David Cromer’s skillful direction I wasn’t touched by it at all. But I was certainly grateful when Mensah showed up at the end of act one as the tough-minded bartender with a sharp sense of irony who challenges Ken’s insulated white-Midwestern vision of the world. (Tamyra is black – the first person of color Ken has interacted with in any significant way since an Air Force buddy.) She and Moore inject the play with some much-needed humor.

Letts knows how to write dialogue, but he isn’t good at structure. August: Osage County was like back-to-back episodes of a TV soap opera; it went on for three and a half hours, though the actors and the psychodrama kept you watching. (On stage, at least: the movie was considerably shorter but felt endless.) Man from Nebraska is standard length – two and a quarter hours, including an intermission – but it rambles so much that when it reaches its conclusion you can’t make sense of it; you don’t know how the Carpenters or the playwright got there. Ken gets back both his faith and his marriage, but I’ll be damned if I could tell you how and why. And even this (more or less) happy ending doesn’t seem to alter the play’s monochromatic palette. I walked out feeling parched.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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