Country music superstar Strings McCrane is trying to get real — but in Kenneth Lonergan’s funny, beguiling but overwritten new play “Hold on to Me Darling,” reality isn’t one of the singer’s strong points. Self-absorption is, and if he wasn’t played with such honeyed charm and awe-shucks sincerity by Timothy Olyphant, this show, clocking in at 2 hours and 45 minutes and premiering at the Atlantic Theater Company, would be one long, achy-breaky night. But Olyphant’s return to the stage since clicking in TV-land (“Justified,” “Deadwood”) is a stunner, striking just the right notes of guilelessness, obliviousness and narcissism to make Strings one of the most appealing messes in a long time.
The play is entertaining and engaging, performed by a top-rate ensemble and directed with finesse by Neil Pepe, but its long reach for political and social resonance is a stretch, with Strings and those around him equating or manipulating his celebrity life and personal angst to a larger moral drift of the country.
Leaving the sci-fi epic he was filming to return to his hometown for the funeral of his momma, Strings realizes he’s been looking at life through the smoked glass of his limousine and living in a world without true feelings. And though those celebrity push-up-brassiere parties were fun, he’s decided to make some changes — even if he doesn’t know what they are just yet.
He announces this change-of-life resolve to his enabling personal assistant, the wide-eyed and worshipful Jimmy (Keith Nobbs, with terrific comic timing) who is always at the ready, “right on the corner of Beck and Call.” But even Jimmy is at first dubious of Strings’ intent.
The impulsive and easily distraught Strings at first finds some comfort with Nancy (Jenn Lyon), a hotel masseuse whom he thinks is more genuine than the supermodels he dates, little realizing that social climbing knows no class. Lyon is transformative, from shy fan to cunning girlfriend to fierce wife defending her turf, her interests and her life.
A less-than-distant cousin Essie (Adelaide Clemens, as authentic as salt) gives Strings some down-home advice: “There’s more important things in this world than your happiness. Maybe if you ever realized that you’d be a little happier.” But that wisdom still alludes him, as does as any sensitivity to the the feelings of others.
Strings’ older brother Duke (C.J. Wilson, effortlessly excellent with a delivery that’s as dry as jerky) also tries to steer him straight, but Duke, too, gets swept up Strings’ romanticized notion to own, run and clerk at a feed and grain store in the Tennessee burg. This is where the play veers into sitcom-silly and loses its sharpness, as quirky bromides, flashes of dark humor and delicious turns of phrases prove less and less effective.
But a late scene reuniting Strings with his long-absent father Mitch (touchingly played by Jonathan Hogan) brings a simple reality to Strings, even though its naturalistic tone is a bit jarring. Still, as beautifully played by both actors — and it’s a long time a’coming, darlings — suddenly Strings and the play find themselves.