An Ordinary Man

Kenneth Lonergan: The Starry Messenger, Wyndham’s Theatre, London (Director: Sam Yates)

By Sascha Krieger

The Starry Messenger, first performed on Broadway in 2009, is a labour of love. In it Kenneth Lonergan, since awarded with an Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, remembers a teacher he encountered as a teenage by at the now long demolished Hayden Planetarium in New York City. Together with his childhood friend Matthew Broderick, Lonergan felt inspired by this quiet, serious man and started imagining his life story. Completed, it was Broderick himself, who brought the anonymous teacher to life and does so again in this year’s revival. This Mark in an introverted man, full of inferiority complex, of feeling inadequate, and in love with science. A husband and father, loving, yet not very good at showing emotions. Facing a (final?) career chance, an unlikely romantic encounter and hostile final class at the soon to be disappearing planetarium, he feels the pangs of middle age, the disappearance of opportunities, the running out of option.

Image: Sascha Krieger

Chiara Stevenson’s revolving stage features three rooms: Marks cosy and slightly upscale apartment, his young lover’s more crowded living room and a hospital room on a cancer yard. In front of this, the dreary classroom appears and dissolves like an illusion, the reality of it countered by Mark#s unease with his position, the conflict between what he has (a humble job teaching something he’s passionate about) and what he wants (an academic career in which he can have an impact). It is a midlife- crisis drama but one eschewing that genre’s tendency for raucous comedy. Broderick’s Mark is the best defense against this. Everything about his is grey, average, unremarkable: his slightly stiff demeanor, his monotonous voice, his rigidly sloppy posture. In arguments with his wife Anne, played by the magnificent Elizabeth McGovern as a mixture of annoying pedantry and truthful perceptiveness, a sceptical and loving partner, more aware of her husbands flaws and potential than he is, another in-between creature, an ambivalent human being, a collection of the shades of grey we so often so not see.

While branded a comedy, the humour is often subtle, always warm-hearted, never hurtful, aways servicing the humanistic message of the play. For Mark is struggling with a deeply human sense of meaning: personal and universal. What is the purpose of his life? What is he here for, what does he want? And is the universe he loves so much devoid of meaning and purpose? Questions they all ask: Mark, Anne, Angela (Rosalind Eleazar), the young training nurse Mark becomes involved with, Norman (Jim Norton), her elderly and outwardly cynical elderly cancer patient. They all struggle with the meaning of life at various stages in theirs: near the start, in the middle, close to the end. They all share their confusion, uncertainty, doubt. While the plot lays it on too heavily at times – the catalyst of a killed child is unnecessary – and sometimes lacks focus – the hospital side plot doubles down and digresses more than it enlightens – the careful, slow, detail-focused direction, eschewing any sensationalism and giving the characters time to breathe and develop, gives the story and its inhabitants life, fullness, complexity.

Which the superb cast makes plenty of use of. All performances are nuanced, life-like, thouroughly authentic (with the slight exception of Mark’s dysfunctional class) while never forgetting they’re part of a comedy. The absence of a younger generation – Angela’s son never appears, Mark’s is reduced to a voice from his room – accentuates the sense of being lost, of being insignificant, the play wrestles with. At one point, Mark say he loves opera because it gives every human, every story „monumental importance“, even the most ordinary existence. He craves this and misses his own being exceptional, he wants to be part of something while not noticing he already is. „So it turns out you can have everything“, his wife states at the very end. An open ending, as open and full of potential as the stars we see all evening, as beautiful as life on the earth, which Beethoven sings a lullaby to before lights fade. Though not flawless and a little long, this gentle and nuanced ode to exceptional ordinariness is among the more truthful and heart-warming fare you’ve seen on a West End Stage in a while.

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