Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Starry Messenger


Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan. At Theater Row. (CLOSED)

Whenever the Times gives a show a bad review but everyone else likes it, we here at Critic-O-Meter tend to get an appreciative e-mail. This will not be one of those days. Despite numerous highly-positive-to-ecstatic reviews of Kenneth Lonergan's new, rumor-of-disaster-besotted play about a nebbishy academic beginning a half-hearted affair during a midlife crisis, naysayers bring the score down considerably. This is one of those crop of reviews where you begin to wonder if everyone saw the same play. Elegantly staged on Derek Lane's beautiful set or flatly staged on Derek Lane's overly-cluttered and awkward set? Matthew Broderick redeems himself with a nuanced, graceful performance or shows himself to be in a career rut with another identical sad sack? Lonergan as director brings out hidden nuances in his script or is self-indulgent and slows the pace down to a crawl? It depends on which reviewers you trust.

Time Out New York A+
(David Cote) Because The Starry Messenger is a Kenneth Lonergan play (which he also directs with a uniformly excellent cast), his characters don’t follow the typical build-and-release emotional arc, nor does he mechanically twist his plot. Sure, there are moments of crisis and gentle revelation, and a tragic event takes place (offstage), but the genius of Lonergan’s approach is to achieve breathtakingly specific and genuine epiphanies through finely tuned dialogue that flows organically from each situation. He evinces a wry sympathy for his creations, balancing glimmers of kindness against a vaster expanse of gloomy resignation.

New York Times A+
(Ben Brantley) The gentle, compassionate comic drama that opened on Monday night at the Acorn Theater has the sweet taste of redemption. It re-establishes Mr. Lonergan, who hasn’t had a new play on the boards since 2001, as a possessor of all the crucial parts of a good dramatist’s anatomy: a critical mind, an empathetic heart and a musical ear that hears whole lives in sentences. And Mr. Broderick delivers his finest, most affecting performance in years. This kindly reversal of fortune for two beleaguered talents feels of a piece with The Starry Messenger, a work that asks for a little patience in considering fallible, contradictory, lonely souls who can never quite articulate what’s missing in their lives but always feel the void. Placing human desires in the overwhelming and indifferent context of the cosmos, this portrait of a dangerously passive astronomy professor is about — not forgiving, which is too grand a word — but accepting the built-in limitations that come with being mortal.

Wall Street Journal A+
(Terry Teachout) The Starry Messenger is an engrossing study of the toll that prolonged disappointment exacts on the human spirit, performed with consummate skill by an ensemble cast led by Matthew Broderick and staged with unassuming finesse by Mr. Lonergan himself...It says much about the nature of Mr. Lonergan's gifts that for all the seeming obviousness of the plot of The Starry Messenger, you'll never be able to guess what happens next. He is a theatrical alchemist who transforms the commonplace by portraying it with quiet honesty and charging it with moral complexity.

Newday A+
(Linda Winer) The Starry Messenger is a quietly marvelous play - rambling, perhaps, but engrossing, thoughtful and richly believable. Lonergan...returns to the theater after eight movie years with a sprawling, mature, leisurely profound serious comedy about everyday desperation and cosmic mysteries. Broderick gives an exquisitely detailed portrayal of yet another of his passive characters, a disappointed middle-aged astronomer named Mark who has almost disappeared inside the discomfort in his own skin. Instead of doing "real" astronomy, he teaches the beginning adult-education course at the Hayden Planetarium - the old building, about to be replaced by the modern one in 1995.

TalkinBroadway A-
(Matthew Murray) 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.

NYPost A-
(Frank Scheck) It's sluggishly paced, overflowing with sub plots and nearly three hours long. So why is "The Starry Messenger" so moving? Maybe it's because there's so much empathy for its characters that all of them, even the unseen ones, seem to possess a deep inner life. Kenneth Lonergan's tale of the unlikely affair between a morose, middle-aged astronomy teacher and a vibrant younger woman may be a rambling one, but its messiness is the messiness of life.

Variety B
(David Rooney) "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.

Lighting and Sound America B-
(David Barbour) Even with its lively cast and multitude of amusing lines, there's no getting around the fact that, at three hours, The Starry Messenger is desperately in need of cutting. (It doesn't help that, after all that time, the play ends on an unresolved note.) It plays like an extremely promising first draft. The script, by all accounts, has been around for a long time, and had a difficult time during previews. Is it too late to take a second look, prune away the excess details, and find the touching, melancholy comedy inside?

The Faster Times C-
(Jonathan Mandell) This, I hope, is a fair summary of The Starry Messenger and it probably took you two minutes to read. The play itself, which has opened on Theater Row, runs three hours. If there is much to admire in it, from some fine acting to a number of witty exchanges, “The Starry Messenger” as a whole seemed less than the sum of its parts, promising me a far more rewarding experience than it delivered.

TheaterMania D+
(Dan Balcalzo) There are several poignant and compelling moments scattered throughout Kenneth Lonergan's overstuffed new play, The Starry Messenger, currently being presented by The New Group at Theatre Row. Unfortunately, lackluster lead performances from Matthew Broderick and Catalina Sandino Moreno work against the subtle layering of emotion within the playwright's script. And with a running time of nearly three hours, the production -- directed by Lonergan -- tends to drag.

Associated Press D
(Michael Kuchwara) There's enough material for several plays in The Starry Messenger, Kenneth Lonergan's sluggish, soggy, mid-life-crisis tale starring Matthew Broderick as an ineffectual astronomy instructor, husband, father and lover. The drama, which The New Group opened Monday at off-Broadway's Acorn Theatre, is awash in meandering talk, conversations that push toward the three-hour mark without much resolution — or relief. And Lonergan has directed his own play, set in 1995, at such a dawdling pace that its actors might be accused of loitering.

NY Daily News D-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Matthew Broderick needs to call a moratorium on middle-aged mopes. His doormat du jour, Mark, an astronomy teacher in The Starry Messenger, blurs with the ones he played in The Philanthropist and The Odd Couple. Broderick is a likable actor, but these inert performances are depleting the goodwill he's banked from better stage and film work. Kenneth Lonergan...is the brains behind this three-hour misfire. Lonergan also directs, and the pace is dialed to "snail."

New Jersey Newsroom F+
(Michael Sommers) Boosted to Off Broadway prominence in part by premiering This Is Our Youth back in 1996, The New Group apparently repays the author by permitting Lonergan to produce this show exactly as he pleased. Had Lonergan been convinced to edit down his often repetitive text — by like an hour or so — a better play might emerge from under the excessive weight. Although it's nice in theory to see a theater company give an established artist the room to fail creatively, it's a pity audiences still have to watch the unfortunate results.

New York Magazine F+
(Scott Brown) With no gravitational center, The Starry Messenger drifts, character orbits loosen and unmoor themselves, and the best moments (most of which involve the superb supporting cast, notably J. Smith-Cameron as Mark’s fussy, fixating wife) spiral off into the dark. Large swaths of dialogue become mere talk. I’ve never heard theatrical speech sound so dispiritingly, stupefyingly mimetic of actual human conversation, in all of its droning tedium. It’s too bad Lonergan doesn’t trust his own silences. Instead, he nervously fills the space (bounded by a pitiless black-walled star-chamber set that instantly suffocates what little light and heat the play gives off) with maundering yammer, false starts, and, deep in the second act, a shockingly miscalculated Hail Mary of melodrama. When he gets stuck—and he gets stuck a lot—Lonergan shows us the stars, but what little we can actually see, through all that writerly debris, is nebulous.

Backstage F
(David Sheward) This script meanders, and the crises faced by its characters come across as either mundane or forced. In addition, Lonergan should have turned the staging reins over to another director. The pacing is glacial, and there are several blocking problems on Derek McLane's cluttered set. Broderick repeats his hangdog, lifeless limning from The Philanthropist, only this time his character's subject is astronomy rather than the history of words.

NorthJersey F-
(Robert Feldberg) One-quarter of the scenes could have been eliminated, and the rest severely pruned, and the core story would have remained intact. The play might not have been better, but at least the audience could have gone home earlier...Broderick and Lonergan have been friends since boyhood, and Smith-Cameron is Lonergan's wife, which explains their involvement. Why the respected New Group chose to produce the play is something their subscribers might want to know.

NYT A+ 14; TONY A+ 14; ND A+ 14; WSJ A+ 14; TB A- 12; NYP A- 12; V B 10; LSA B 9; TFT C-6; TM D+ 5; AP D 4; NYDN D- 3; NYM F+ 2; NJNR F+ 2; BS F 1; NJ F- 0; 122 /16 = 7.63(C+)


Justin W. said...

This crop of reviews reminded me of something that I thought would be a good addition to your site. Is there some elegant way of depicting the polarization of a play's reviews? Maybe a little automated bar graph showing the distribution in the A through F range? Some kind of standard deviation? Of course, this just makes more work for you... but I think readers would be interested in distinguishing a C play with lots of A's and F's than a C play with mostly C's.

isaac butler said...


Thanks for the comment! We're actually looking at doing things similar to this in the future. Just trying to figure out functionality!