Monday, June 17, 2019

The Starry Messenger: Adrift in the Universe

Matthew Broderick in The Starry Messenger. (Photo: Mark Brenner)

I seem to be temperamentally drawn to Kenneth Lonergan’s plays and movies: his wry, bemused dialogue makes me laugh, and I’m captivated by his characters, even when he can’t quite situate them in fully worked-through scenarios. The Starry Messenger opened in New York ten years ago, with Matthew Broderick, a Lonergan favorite, as a New York astronomy professor enduring a mid-life crisis and Lonergan’s talented wife, J. Smith-Cameron, as the hero’s long-suffering wife, and didn’t attract much attention. The play, resurrected for London’s West End with Broderick repeating his performance and Elizabeth McGovern as the wife, stumbles around – it has only eight characters but four hinged plots, and at the end of nearly three hours Lonergan still hasn’t worked out the structure or completed satisfactory arcs for the main ones. But it’s warm and compelling, and even the plot developments you know are mistakes generate something you can hold onto.

Around the same time Lonergan wrote and directed the movie Margaret, which is just about as long as The Starry Messenger; it was cut on its original, botched release, but he fought to have the excised footage restored for the DVD, and he knew what he was doing. Margaret has a pensive, interior quality, and the somewhat meandering structure allows the characters – especially the sensitive, intelligent teenage hero played by Anna Paquin – to shift and reveal themselves in a way that feels close to real experience, and the actors to take the characters in directions we might not have expected. I don’t think the same impulse motivates the length of The Starry Messenger. Mark, its fifty-one-year-old protagonist, is bored in his marriage, can’t communicate with his fifteen-year-old son (an offstage voice wittily supplied by Sid Sagar), and his teaching, divided between City College and a stint at the old, on-its-last-legs Hayden Planetarium, of which we see glimpses, is rote and cheerless, though he makes a superficial, unconvincing attempt at tour-guide enthusiasm. One day a woman in her early thirties named Angela (Rosalind Eleazar) wanders into his classroom in search of a class for her curious nine-year-old, David. She’s completing a nursing program and she has her own problems, which revolve around her ex-, David’s father, who lives in Philly and who she doesn’t think is a good influence. When Mark offers to give David a backstage tour of the planetarium and Angela invites him up for coffee afterwards, they become lovers. The other plots involve Mark’s struggles with the students in the planetarium intro class on the universe and Angela’s friendship with Norman (Jim Norton), a patient at the cancer hospital where she does weekend rotations.

Broadly speaking, the play is about loneliness and connection – the ways in which we circle each other (like the moons circling the planets in Mark’s astronomy lectures), the gaps between us that can exasperate and depress us, and the mystery and poignancy of the moments when we touch each other. All the stories address this idea – most humorously in the classroom scenes, where one of Mark’s students, a woman in her sixties (Jenny Galloway) who questions compulsively and acts as if his answers were personal affronts to her intelligence while another, a young Kinko’s clerk (Sagar), offers “helpful” criticism in the form of prepared evaluations of his lectures; and most affectingly in the hospital scenes. Norman’s banter with Angela, which is innocently flirtatious and helps keep him engaged in a life that he may or may not be coming to the end of, is countered by his visits from his daughter Doris (Sinéad Matthews), who feels his illness is a burden that her out-of-town sister isn’t taking her fair share of and whom he avoids as much as possible by pretending to be asleep when she comes into his room.

Matthew Broderick and Elizabeth McGovern in The Starry Messenger. (Photo: Mark Brenner)

You can sense Lonergan trying to get these overlapping narratives and the characters featured in them to come together into a satisfying whole, and you hope against hope that he will – but then in act two he makes a bad misjudgment. Abruptly Angela stops seeing Mark or taking his calls; when he shows up at her apartment late one night, concerned about her, she reveals that David was killed in a drive-by shooting while visiting his dad in Philadelphia. She’s certain that it’s the wages of her sin, her affair with Mark (a notion that turns out to have been either planted or encouraged by her parish priest). This development derails the play, which never recovers – though Lonergan keeps it going and going while he toils away in an effort to rescue it. The ending is probably meant to be ambiguous, but it’s merely dramatically unresolved because he hasn’t been able to pull out of the hole he’s landed himself in. It also seems like Lonergan is trying to work out something about his own atheism, especially in the scene where Mark and Angela – he doesn’t believe in God, obviously she does – debate the notion of aloneness in the universe, and the particularly clumsy one where Norman argues vehemently that the priest who blamed her for her son’s death isn’t her friend. These scenes appear to be fighting each other. Mark admits to Angela that since his father’s death he has had the sense that his father, whom he adored, is watching over him but his rational self tells him that can’t be so, while she’s sure that her grandmother’s spirit is a lingering presence. The potency of Mark’s experience keeps the possibility afloat that there’s a spiritual level that he can neither accept nor entirely reject, but the almost sadistic Catholic moralism of her (unseen) priest operates as a way of closing down the possibility.

Broderick has a weird gift for inhabiting the souls of befuddled, passive men and finding both the humor and the pathos in their tribulations. Mark’s interactions with his two obtrusive students – Ian, the Kinko’s nerd, has an annoying habit of talking over his lectures in order to explain concepts that the irate questioner, Mrs. Pysner, doesn’t grasp – are very funny. Though officially he’s the starry messenger delivering the news about the nature of the universe, Mark is a small, fubsy man (to borrow the adjective used for the Alec Guinness character in the movie The Lavender Hill Mob) whom we might make the mistake of dismissing as boring; Lonergan’s idea is to examine the inner life of such a man and to suggest that it contains surprises – as his young colleague Arnold (Joplin Sibtain), clearly a more engaging teacher who has already outdistanced him as a scholar, discovers when he comes across him on the floor of his classroom in a clinch with Angela. (Arnold, who comes across as self-involved at first, surprise us too, when he does Mark a good turn out of affection and generosity.)

The staging by Sam Yates is static; you get tired of looking at the actors standing or sitting opposite each other, though to be fair Chiara Stevenson’s narrow set hems them in. You can’t quarrel with his work with the ensemble, however, which is uniformly excellent. Eleazar brings a sweetness to the role of Angela; when tragedy causes the character to become unmoored, you fear for her. McGovern does what she can with Mark’s wife Anne, the least interesting of the female parts, even including Mrs. Pysner. Both Galloway and Sagar find the distinctive humor in their small roles, and they make what could be merely comic stereotypes vividly recognizable. Matthews does wonders with the wounded Doris; she reminded me of Ellen Burstyn as Art Carney’s daughter in the Paul Mazursky movie Harry and Tonto, whose happiness seems so deeply rooted you can’t imagine how she could ever get past it. In a particularly painful scene she confronts Angela over a kiss she saw the young nurse bestow on her father, which she misread, as much out of her own inability to connect with him and her envy that he takes more pleasure in the presence of a surrogate daughter as out of a reflex certainty that she’s come upon inappropriate behavior. (The fact that, even a decade after Lonergan wrote this scene, it’s easy to envision an audience making the same mistake as Doris underscores it in ways he probably didn’t intend.) Best of all is the remarkable Jim Norton. Lonergan has written a tender speech for Norman that conveys his anguish, undiminished all these years later (the play is set during the Clinton era), over the death of his adored older brother at nineteen during the Korean War, and Norton’s reading of it is the best demonstration of the art of acting I’ve seen in my three weeks in London.

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 Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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