Anyone not familiar with Kenneth Lonergan might recognise Manchester by the Sea, for which he won Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards in 2017. And the names of Matthew Broderick and Elizabeth McGovern are a clear incentive to add some tickets to your basket. But The Starry Messenger doesn’t quite earn the glittering cast which is central in carrying the jumbled and wandering plot line.
Broderick stars as Mark – an astronomy teacher at the Hayden Planetarium in New York – who meets Rosalind Eleazar’s Angela, a nurse, and begins an affair that brings some sparkle to an otherwise mundane life that hasn’t quite turned out the way he wanted. Anne (McGovern) is his contrastingly enthusiastic but practical and apparently unexciting wife, focused on keeping the family cogs chugging along.
The play is deeply naturalistic and the sarcastic and mundane conversational banter between Mark, his wife, his son, and his students, is at first entertaining to watch. But for a play that professes to be astronomically expansive, it doesn’t ever take us very far. It strolls through considerations of religious faith and guilt, morality, and failed aspirations, incorporating characters such as Angela’s patient Norman and his daughter, who seem to find no assured space in the plot. It gently thrusts towards different stories and themes, grounded only by the clichéd affair, and never quite takes off.
Yet the cast is faultless and each actor seems entirely natural in their character. Scene-by-scene they have plenty of material to work with and are fantastic in complementing the intense naturalism of the piece – it’s just that the scenes don’t quite come together to make anything extraordinary. Broderick is fascinating to watch and, quite frankly, I could happily sit and watch him read from a shopping list for three hours. He gives his deliberately bland character an extraordinary quality of stillness and, economical with his facial expressions, is vocally exhilarating. Eleazar matches Broderick’s precision and creates a wonderfully warm character with a rich emotional depth to counterbalance Broderick’s quietude.
My trouble with the play is deciphering its intended destination. There is a moment when, with Angela having experienced a tragedy, it seems to find its feet, and perhaps the intense preceding verism leads up to generating a shock factor with stronger reverberations. But this makes Angela the central character to explore, yet we soon return to Mark as the focal point once they break up. With a philosophical speech about a lack of human control from Norman, and Mark asserting himself as a ‘messenger’ from the firmament to his students, the play drifts off on this weak attempt to find meaning for itself.
Maybe this is a comment on the uncontrollable transience and often mundane quality of human life but by the end of the evening I feel like I’ve just been looking over my neighbour’s garden fence into their life, with no character or issue explored sufficiently to make the narrative enthralling. The play may be brilliantly star-studded but it left me firmly at street level.
- By Kenneth Lonergan
- Directed by Sam Yates
- Cast includes: Matthew Broderick, Elizabeth McGovern, Jim Norton and Rosalind Eleazar
- Wyndham's Theatre
- Until 10th August 2019
- Time: 19:30. Matinees: Wednesdays and Saturdays 14:30