Stage and Cinema film and theatre reviews

The Starry Messenger by Kenneth Lonergan – Off Broadway Theater Review




picture - The Starry MessengerTheater Review

by Cindy Pierre

published November 29, 2009


The Starry Messenger

now playing at The Acorn on Theater Row

through December 12


Matthew Broderick has found a new niche.  Long gone are the days when he made a champion out of a slacker in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  These days, he plays characters that apply themselves toward other people’s goals, but still find it hard to be impactful.


Fast on the heels of The Philanthropist, where Broderick played a submissive college professor, is Kenneth Lonergan’s The Starry Messenger, where he once again plays a submissive professor.  This time, however, he has neither the affluence nor the oblivion to pad his role.  Mark Williams is a failed astronomer in touch with his irrelevance, in touch with his pain, and in touch with his physical and financial needs.  But despite a valiant effort by Broderick to embrace these feelings and conditions, the protagonist of this story is the least consequential of the production.


Mark’s insignificance to his field and the people around him may have been intended by the playwright as the breadth of the role, but what transpires on stage adds a dimension to enacting that Broderick surely could not have purposed.  In a production that seems to have been edited and then edited some more to the point where discontinuity shows, the most appealing and memorable element also happens to be the most complete. 


picture - The Starry MessengerJason Lyons’ lighting design is a starry visual feast that immediately opens your eyes to the majesty of the universe, if they were closed before.  If they were already open, the dazzling effects will pull near what you could only see from afar in a telescope.  Coupled with Austin Switser’s projection design, they express the joy and wonder of the skies that Mark cannot seem to convey in his class.


Broderick tries hard for laughs, particularly in the beginning, but it’s hard for Mark to crack jokes when he’s crying inside.  His job is a downgrade from his dreams, his marriage to Anne (the wonderful J. Smith-Cameron) is a field goal punt where she’s always the kicker, and his son Adam seems to be bred from the same loser stock that he thinks he sprouted from.  All is calm but very little is bright until Angela (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a single mother looking to enroll her son in astronomy classes, illuminates his door.  In spite of different upbringings and stations in life, they manage to find common ground and comfort in one another, but Derek McLane’s set design doesn’t make it easy.


In an awkward staging where a whopping four stationary sets share one space, The Starry Messenger’s stage clutter competes with its clarity.  Even if the show was presented in a larger space than The New Group’s theater at Theatre Row, it still wouldn’t justify the lack of mobility for the set pieces or the need for all of them to exist at all.  As if the constant presence of props that aren’t being used isn’t enough, actors that are “inactive” are like sitting players waiting to be called from the bench under Lonergan’s direction.


picture - The Starry MessengerLuckily, when the benched players are called, they come out ready and raring to go.  Despite participating in subplots that are either muddled or over-extended, the supporting cast is strong not only due to performance, but because some of sharpest dialogue is assigned to them.  From the two inquisitive students whose inquisitiveness springs forth for entirely different reasons to the crusty patient with the daughter that considers herself a martyr, there are plenty of performers to add color to this story.  But even occasional heartfelt moments can’t distract you from an uneven, unfinished production where the central figure takes a back seat to everyone and everything else.


The Starry Messenger may have glimmers of brilliance, but it’s a long way from being the vehicle that Broderick needs to rocket him back into Tony Award territory.  One character quips that “as it turns out, you can have everything,” but this production is missing quite a bit. 


cindypierre @


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