The Starry Messenger
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 21, 2009
The message of Kenneth Lonergan's new play, The Starry Messenger, seems to be that even the most ineffectual and mediocre among us can find success and happiness, as long as they are fortunate enough to have friends and family who will care for them and carry them along.
Honestly, I can't remember when I saw a play whose protagonist was as colorless and uninteresting as Mark Williams. He's the leading character of The Starry Messenger: a middle-aged man with an unfulfilling job as an astronomy teacher for the Hayden Planetarium (the year is 1995, just before the original Planetarium was torn down). He's not as popular a teacher as his much more successful friend Arnold (we can hear the appreciative laughs from his offstage classroom during Mark's own tepidly received lectures). Mark really wants to do, rather than teach; he's just been turned down for a research position but he's now thinking he might like to take another job on the same project—one that he's very overqualified for, but would still put him nearer actual science than where he is now.
Mark's home life is no more satisfactory. His teenage son Adam spends all his time in the basement horsing around with an electric guitar; the two do not communicate well. And Mark's wife Anne, forced to make every decision for the family due to Mark's apparent inability to make choices of any kind, seems domineering and difficult.
Early in the play, Mark has a chance meeting with Angela Vasquez when she stops by his classroom one night to inquire about signing her son up for the astronomy course. A relationship develops quickly between the two, though Lonergan doesn't really show us what makes the pair click. Soon Mark has embarked on an extra-marital affair. When unexpected problems arise for Angela (career- and family-wise), their relationship is severely tested. But Lonergan supplies a happy ending for Mark, in no small part thanks to his reliance on others throughout the play to resolve anything troublesome that comes along.
I kept waiting for the revelation: what is it about Mark that will transform him into an active grown-up man who wants things and goes after them? Or what thing from his past is preventing him from doing so? Alas, this information never surfaces in The Starry Messenger. Our passive protagonist remains passive, and it becomes increasingly difficult to care about him as a result.
The situation is not helped by the casting of Matthew Broderick as Mark. I am a big fan of Broderick, but here he disappoints badly. He plays Mark as the nonentity that Lonergan has written, supplying nothing in the way of psychology or back story or subtext to build the character up. His Mark is a total blank; and watching him strain to hold our attention for the nearly three hours of this play proved quite a chore.
Equally problematic is Catalina Sandino Moreno's performance as Angela. She doesn't have the acting chops to overcome the underwriting and illogic of her role, and she and Broderick have very little in the way of chemistry.
But others in the cast compensate somewhat for the weaknesses of the two leading players. J. Smith-Cameron brings her usual intelligence and radiance to Anne, and as we get to know her as the play progresses, she emerges as the most interesting and likable individual on stage—if only Lonergan had chosen to focus on her, rather than Mark, The Starry Messenger might have been more satisfying. Merwin Goldsmith is terrific in a few scenes as a cancer patient being nursed by Angela; he is more expressive when his character is supposed to be asleep than Broderick is at any point during the play. Grant Shaud lends some much-needed energy to the proceedings as Arnold. And Kieran Culkin is very humorous indeed as the wayward son Adam and as one of Mark's troublesome astronomy students.
Derek McLane's set places the various required locations side by side across the very wide Acorn Theatre stage, making it difficult to see details in some of the scenes if you are unlucky enough to be seated on either end of the auditorium. The other design elements are serviceable. Lonergan directed his own script here; an outside eye might have helped him make cuts to a play that is way longer than it needs to be. But the underlying idea of The Starry Messenger—that a white man can have whatever he wants, at the expense of his wife, his son, his harder-working friends, and his Hispanic mistress—is ultimately so repugnant to me that even if it were shorter I doubt that I would have enjoyed this piece any more than I did in this production.