An agnostic version of a Medieval morality drama fused with elements of both “About Schmidt” and David Mamet’s “Edmund,” the brooding new play from Chi scribe Tracy Letts purports to be a drama about a middle-aged Nebraska insurance agent’s sudden loss of his lifelong religious faith. Yet as his protagonist’s reverse pilgrim’s progress unspools, Letts has strikingly little to say about spiritual matters. This is a play about the quotidian agonies of the dull white-collar, Midwestern, married life. Thanks to a stellar performance from Rick Snyder as the titular loser, the huge premiere Steppenwolf production is such an expansive and generally impressive endeavor that it covers up many of the play’s original sins.
With some hefty first-act revisions — and the correction of a number of tough-to-believe scenarios in the script — the play might move elsewhere. Since London and arty Brits provide a measure of eventual happiness for the poor Prairie refugee, “Nebraska” probably would go down well in the U.K., where Letts’ previous “Killer Joe” was a hit.
Letts — also a member of the Steppenwolf acting ensemble — is best known for the gritty “Killer Joe” and also “Bug.” This latest effort, though, is a radical departure in style from his previous excursions into the sordid lives of the underclass — although he still manages to work in a woman with a pair of handcuffs. Nonetheless, this clearly is a play for a different, grownup market with nary a fringe in sight.
After establishing that Ken’s Nebraska life is duller than dishwater in church, home and local cafeteria, events come to a head when the poor fellow (Snyder) finds himself crying in the bathroom and no longer feeling that old-time religious fervor. He decides a vacation may solve his problems.
His wife (Rondi Reed) supportively lets her spouse toddle off for a little solo R&R in London (where he supposedly was stationed in the military, although that makes little sense). Off he goes, meeting a sexy predator on the plane (as do so many Nebraska insurance agents) and eventually spilling his guts to the countercultural barkeep he finds in a West End Sheraton.
Latter, Tamyra (Karen Aldridge), takes pity on the poor lost American soul, introducing him to her sculptor flatmate (played by Michael Shannon from “8 Mile”) and helping him get a bit arty in the East End and a bit less depressed. Meanwhile, wife, pastor, pastor’s father and Ken’s less-than-supportive grown daughters all try to muddle through without him. Eventually, the fellow goes back to his wife.
And there you have it. Much doesn’t stand the test of realism: There’s no mention of where Ken got the cash he’s blowing through, no cogent explanation of his less-than-credible desertion of an elderly relative.
That said, the direct and emotionally rich Snyder makes the central character an empathetic soul (far more than, say, Jack Nicholson did with a similar type). And the scenes between Snyder and the superb Reed as his wife are both moving and the best-written parts of the play. Similarly, there’s earnest character work from Aldridge and Shannon, who flesh out archetypes with real care.
The play is uncommonly well directed by Anna Shapiro, and the colossal set, displaying all the locales of Ken’s life, “Hollywood Squares”-style, is quite something. But even Shapiro and a big production budget cannot overcome the deadly pace of the first act. Once we hit London, things move more swiftly.
A play about life as it is lived (at times, at least), “The Man From Nebraska” does connect with an audience familiar with day-to-day depressions and the desire to pack it all in.