Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Man from Nebraska


Four years before Tracy Letts wrote Pulitzer Prize winner “August: Osage County,” he wrote another play that was nominated for the Pulitzer, this one. After seeing the play, I can understand why it took over 13 years to reach New York. It is a play that will provoke wildly divergent reactions. What some will regard as alternately droll and touching, others will find merely banal and tedious. My own reaction falls somewhere in between. I never pass up a chance to see the work of actor Reed Birney (“The Humans”), playwright Letts or director David Cromer (“The Band’s Visit”). Birney plays Ken Carpenter, a 60-something insurance man from Lincoln, Nebraska who faces a sudden crisis of faith. We see him and his wife Nancy (Annette O’Toole) on a typical Sunday on the way to church, during the service, at a cafeteria, visiting Ken’s physically and mentally declining mother (Kathleen Peirce) at her nursing home, watching tv and going to bed. During the night Ken begins weeping uncontrollably and tells Nancy that he no longer believes in God. His uptight married daughter Ashley (Annika Boras) is less than supportive. Reverend Todd (William Ragsdale) counsels Ken to take a vacation alone. He decides to go to London which he had enjoyed 40 years before when he was in the Air Force. On the flight, he meets Pat (Heidi Armbruster), a predatory divorcee with a taste for bondage who seduces him. At his hotel, he strikes up a friendship of sorts with the lovely black bartender Tamyra (Nana Mensah). Eventually he meets her sculptor flatmate Harry (Max Gordon Moore) and takes lessons from him. Back at home, lonely and depressed Nancy starts spending a lot of time with Reverend Todd’s father Bud (Tom Bloom). Ken’s reception upon his return is uncertain. The play’s episodic structure does not seem organic. Birney, as always, is superb. Mensah is also strong. O”Toole, to me at least, seemed mannered. The set by Takeshi Kata makes full use of Second Stage’s wide stage, with furniture lined up against the back wall brought forward as needed. The top two-thirds of the back wall is covered by sometimes illuminated clouds that are both fluffy and ominous. The costumes by Sarah Laux suit their characters well. Particularly in the first act, director Cromer lets scenes breathe longer than some can easily tolerate. I predict that you will have a strong reaction to the play. Whether it will be negative or positive is the question. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes, including intermission.

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