Review - Matthew Broderick in The Starry Messenger at Wyndham's Theatre
It seems strange to be applying a star rating to a play that is all about stars: meeting a story about the infinite universe with a finite rating. But then that is also what Kenneth Lonergan's tenderly perceptive play about our own tiny part in the universe revolves around: how do we try to understand something that is so far beyond us, and how do we make sense of our own lives?
Lonergan makes his lead character a middle-aged astronomy teacher of night classes at New York's Hayden Planetarium, just as it was about to be torn down in 1997 to make way for the imposing glass-boxed replacement that now stands on Central Park West, adjoining the Natural History Museum.
New York is adept at wielding the wrecking ball on its own past: as Lonergan puts it in a beautiful introductory essay to the published script of the play, the original planetarium was built in 1935 and demolished in 1997: "That's about average for the lifespan of a beautiful, functioning building in New York, a city that tears itself down every twenty years or so, usually for reasons that have more do with greed than need."
Need, however, illuminates his play, as its characters yearn for something other, outside of themselves. Mark, the astronomy teacher is longing for a research post, but meanwhile strikes up an affair with a young mother who comes to him looking for a class to bring her nine-year-old son to. She's training to be a nurse, and one of the patients on the cancer ward she works at weekends is dying, whom she forges a fond friendship with.
As these worlds tenderly and sometimes painfully intersect, Lonergan writes a cryptically subdued play that combines the big cosmic questions with the random banalities of life, like planning for a visit from your mother-in-law, and dealing with an unasked-for appraisal of your teaching skills from a student.
Director Sam Yates's production is definitely a slow-burner, but the slow reveal of the play's intricate patterns is deliberate, finding both the poetry and the drama in the seemingly banal.
Originally premiered under the auspices of New York's The New Group in 2009, when Lonergan directed it himself, Broadway star Matthew Broderick now makes his West End debut to reprise the role of Mark that he originally played then. The perennially boyish-looking actor now has hair streaked with grey, so is perfect for the role of a man now facing a middle-aged crisis. He has a hangdog sincerity and warmth, too, even as his character is stumbling through his life.
As his wife Anne, Elizabeth McGovern has a much smaller role, but brings a piercing vulnerability to the bright surface she projects. The stand-outs, however, are Rosalind Eleazar as the nurse Angela, and Jim Norton as her patient Norman, whose own more immediate experiences with mortality are heartrendingly acted.
Lonergan, who last year saw his 2000 play The Waverly Gallery beautifully revived on Broadway where it has been nominated for a Tony Award for best revival, is on a roll now with this terrific West End debut for his 2009 play. Perhaps someone could let London see The Waverly Gallery, too, now?
The Starry Messenger tickets are available now.