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The Starry Messenger

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Matthew Broderick and J. Smith-Cameron.
Photo by Monique Carboni.

Near the end of the first act of The Starry Messenger, the new play written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan that The New Group is presenting at the Acorn Theatre, astronomy lecturer Mark Williams (Matthew Broderick) receives the worst news any teacher can. A student named Ian (Kieran Culkin) wants to give him an evaluation - halfway through the survey course Mark is teaching at the Hayden Planetarium. Ian insists teachers usually appreciate and benefit from the feedback - and then proceeds to criticize everything from Mark's presentation to his personality.

It won't be revealed here whether Ian changes his tune when the end of the course arrives. Regardless, the message is clear: Passing judgment before having all the information leads to a dangerously incomplete picture of reality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that's the lesson of the play in more ways than one. From reading certain major newspapers, one had every right to expect a nuclear disaster onstage, with befuddled actors and even more haphazard writing. Harder to imagine was that it could be a quietly beautiful meditation on humanity's existential idiosyncrasies and indecisions, yet that's just what Lonergan and his company deliver.

Is the final product perfect? By no means. Preview articles spun horror stories of Lonergan's almost constant cutting and rewriting, and his three-hour play still feels unbalanced, with noticeable stretches of dead air. And no honest assessment of Broderick - who's better here than he's been in years - is possible without admitting that, likely because of those constant changes, he's still somewhat shaky on his lines in almost every scene.

But to grant undue attention to these problems is to overlook a legitimately lovely piece of writing that entertains, enlightens, and engages throughout. Mark's saga is a pointed and sobering one that highlights the debilitating malaise that can overcome all of us when we discover that our adulthood is neither what we've planned nor what we've tried to make it. And as this milquetoast professor tries to balance a career looking at the stars with being too timid to rise to walk among them, Lonergan even points the path to a solution.

Catalina Sandino Moreno and Matthew Broderick.
Photo by Monique Carboni.

Assuming, of course, there's even really an issue. It's not something Mark can pinpoint. He knows work isn't fulfilling him, and that he'll lose a part of himself when the planetarium he's loved for decades is torn down and replaced by a "hideous glass monstrosity" (as happened in the mid 1990s, when the play is set), but that a new job as a number cruncher on a high-profile project might be even worse. He knows there's an invisible barrier between him and his wife (J. Smith-Cameron) and son (unseen, but voiced by Culkin) that he can't surmount. And he knows he's attracted to a young woman named Angela (Catalina Sandino Moreno) he met at the planetarium, but can't decide whether that's good or bad for his soul.

The mounting tensions at work and home struggle like a black hole to pull Mark apart by his component atoms, but he resists and instead attempts to realign his jumbled psyche. Mark's quest to learn which parts of himself to release and which to cling to may be as complex to him as diagramming star charts, but it's an essential step for him in finding the happiness he's allowed to elude him for so long.

And his journey is shockingly compelling, not least because it's so understated. Lonergan paints Mark's difficulties only in slightly adjusted shadings of a single hue - dark blue, the prevailing color in Derek McLane's handsome skyscape-meets-cityscape set, would be my guess - so there are few alternating highs and lows. But because you see every possible variation within that limited range, the palette seems very rich. And though Mark himself never digs deeper than tragedy by proxy, when Angela experiences a devastating loss, his shallowness is so expertly explored that you feel you understand him fully.

A fair amount of the success is due to Broderick. He's still afflicted by an unnaturally whiny affectation that's crept into his voice since his 1980s heyday, and though he's shed roughly 90 percent of it since his disastrous turn in The Philanthropist last season, significant scraps do remain. But that lack of cohesion is just right for Mark, who's undergoing his own crippling identity crisis.

Letting adolescent discomfort wash over his face whenever the temperature rises even half a degree, Broderick makes Mark - as he has many of his recent portrayals - so uncomfortable in his own skin that he'll do anything to escape it. This gives Mark the physical and emotional presence of both a nobody who wants everything and a somebody who wants nothing, which adroitly complement Mark's contradictions as an astronomer who doesn't believe in the possibilities of space, an atheist who believes in an afterlife, and an adulterer who needs to stay married to the woman he no longer understands.

If Broderick's performance stops short of exciting, it's a complete portrayal that one imagines will only grow still further as Broderick becomes more secure with his lines. Smith-Cameron, however, is a bit too much of a hair-trigger ballbuster to provide a constantly viable alternative to Angela, whom Moreno never quite convinces us is a woman who is herself at a major personal and professional crossroads. Culkin is excellent within his very limited scope as two annoying teenagers, Stephanie Cannon is a grim delight as a particularly clueless student, and Grant Shaud is a bookish success as Mark's encouraging colleague.

According to reports, Lonergan has been wrestling with The Starry Messenger for about 20 years, and he's apparently still searching for its proper shape, something he may have trouble finding as both playwright and director. The former needs to do something about a series of scenes set at the hospital where Angela works as a nursing trainee, and which feature Merwin Goldsmith as a deathbed patient and Missy Yager as his anxious daughter; they overlap thematically with Mark's troubles, but currently add little new information of their own. And the latter must address the pacing, which is generally leisurely almost to the point of lethargy.

Not that The Starry Messenger should be sped up too much or, God forbid, rushed through. This is a play that's smart and solid enough to take its time, but it should still use every minute it claims to the fullest - Ian, assessing the play at this point, would not be wholly thrilled. But if he were paying attention and paying heed to Lonergan's warnings about taking life and people for granted, he'd probably conclude this is a thoughtful, potentially gorgeous play merely in need of additional polishing. I, for one, hope it gets it, so it can shine as brightly as the stars Mark loves more than he does himself.

The Starry Messenger
Through December 12
The New Group @ Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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