The Starry Messenger by Kenneth
Lonergan – Off Broadway Theater Review
ASTRONOMICAL PIECES MISSING
by Cindy Pierre
published November 29, 2009
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
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.
Jason 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.
Luckily, 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 @ stageandcinema.com