“Nobody knows anything,” says a character who has spent time staring into the abyss in “The Starry Messenger.” “We’re all just guessing.” That may be true, but playwright-director Kenneth Lonergan sure knows how to enrich the process of fumbling reflection, lacing questions large and small, about ourselves and the cosmos, with characteristic sensitivity, compassion and humor. While it’s frustrating at times and too unhurried, this melancholy, resolutely non-judgmental mid-life crisis drama creeps up on you. It smartly refuses forced epiphanies in favor of quiet contemplation, with an intimacy that reverberates across the night sky blanketing the walls of Derek McLane’s set.
The play has had a difficult road to New York. A Broadway tryout, originally announced for San Diego’s Old Globe in January 2007, was canceled due to Lonergan’s ongoing work on his troubled Fox Searchlight feature, “Margaret.” Manhattan Theater Club then scheduled an Off Broadway bow in February 2008, but that plan fell apart while issues with the film dragged on.
The New Group, which had a notable success in 1996 with Lonergan’s breakout play, “This Is Our Youth,” then stepped in, but problems threatened to persist, with one actor dropping out during rehearsals. Reports emerged from previews that the new play, running three hours-plus, was rambling and unfocused; that Matthew Broderick, who has remained attached since the beginning, was unsure of his lines and was relying on a prompter; and that Lonergan, in his first time directing for the stage, was still busy cutting and rewriting, his attention sapped by legal headaches over “Margaret.”
While there’s still room for fine-tuning, the quality of the play and Lonergan’s rewarding production speaks volumes about the ambulance-chasing nature of theater reporters and chatrooms, eager to form premature verdicts about evolving works.
Broderick plays Mark Williams, a dullish, gray kind of guy who regards himself as second-rate; he has downgraded his life-long ambition to be an astronomer to a dead-end teaching job at the Hayden Planetarium. His marriage to Anne (J. Smith-Cameron) is not exactly unhappy, but it’s flat, underscored by the tension of her verbosity clashing against his uncommunicativeness.
Mark strikes up a friendship that develops into romance with young single mother and trainee nurse Angela (Catalina Sandino Moreno). In a secondary storyline, Angela offers a sympathetic ear to the struggle with mortality of seemingly terminal cancer patient Norman (Merwin Goldsmith). This creates friction with his tightly wound daughter (Missy Yager), who feels no closeness with the old man. But a tragedy in Angela’s life abruptly shifts her perspective, also derailing her relationship with Mark.
Lonergan segments the drama over four playing spaces in McLane’s cobalt blue Planetarium set, representing the classroom, hospital, Mark’s home and Angela’s. While the connective thread, particularly with the hospital scenes, could be stronger, the play and its insinuating questions about life and relationships acquire cumulative weight and poignancy.
Mark’s uncomfortable introspection gets further unasked-for stimulation from two students, one a smart, opinionated kid (Kieran Culkin) determined to share his detailed teacher evaluation, the other a dim housewife (Stephanie Cannon) who’s borderline hostile in her obtuseness. There’s also warmer input from his friendly teaching colleague (Grant Shaud), who views Mark’s conquest of Angela as a breakthrough victory for science nerds everywhere.
Broderick requires some getting used to. At first glimpse, his performance seems a repeat of the standard monotone nebbish he’s sleepwalked through in his last handful of New York stage appearances. But Lonergan wrote this part for the actor, and like all the characters here, Mark has far deeper shadings than are apparent in the way he’s initially presented.
Broderick explores those shadings with subtlety and humility in a performance full of piercing understatement. The thoughts that play across his face as he listens alone to an aria from “La Traviata” tell a heartbreaking story. His scenes with Smith-Cameron are especially elevated by emotional truth, as Anne, rattling off concerns about an impending holiday family visit, lurches nervously between brittle and soft, controlling and accommodating.
Smith-Cameron is touching as a woman torn between exasperation and anxiety about her marriage. Delicate insights also emerge through small, telling exchanges between Mark and their unseen teenage son (voiced offstage by Culkin).
Making her stage debut, Moreno (“Maria Full of Grace”) lacks confidence, perhaps partly due to the inconsistencies of changeable Angela. But she grows in the role, showing more nuance in some lovely scenes with Norman, who is played with a humorous and very real balance of empathy, self-pity and no-bullshit curmudgeonliness by Goldsmith. Culkin and Shaud have incisive moments, while Yager (an original cast member of “This Is Our Youth”) effectively illustrates the fight between love and resentment.
Like many writers directing their own work, Lonergan could use a more objective editor; he leans often toward messy ponderousness, and structure is not his strongest point.
Mark’s long monologue to his students near the end, in particular, is overwritten. He reflects on the vast mysteries of universes scientific, personal and spiritual, and the endless different ways those worlds can be viewed. Lonergan stuffs too much into the speech, but as a means of connecting the central character to his history and his uncertain future, conveying how this closed-off man has begun to look within himself, it has glimmers of real soul. Which is a quality that distinguishes “The Starry Messenger” as a whole.