'Man From Nebraska': Theater Review

Courtesy of Joan Marcus
This problematic but deeply affecting work is enhanced by superb performances by the ensemble, including Reed Birney and Annette O'Toole.
3/12/2017

Tony Award-winner Reed Birney stars in the New York premiere of this 2003 play by Tracy Letts, author of 'August: Osage County.'

As Tracy Letts’ Man From Nebraska opens, a middle-aged man and his wife of 40 years are living a life of quiet routine. We see them driving; sitting in church and listening to a sermon; having a steak dinner in a cafeteria-style restaurant; visiting his elderly, dementia-addled mother in a nursing home; and finally, sitting on a couch and watching television. And then the bottom drops out of their cozy, well-ordered lives.   

In the middle of the night, Ken (Reed Birney) flees to the bathroom while his wife Nancy (Annette O’Toole) remains sleeping in bed. He tries to muffle his anguished, hysterical crying with a towel, but she wakes up anyway and rushes to his side, asking if he’s having a heart attack or a stroke.

“I don’t believe in God!” he cries out. When she expresses befuddlement at his sudden existential despair, he can provide little by way of explanation. “I don’t understand the stars,” he adds, mournfully.

This 2003 play by the author of such works as Bug, Killer Joe and the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County is only now receiving its New York City premiere, despite having been a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. The lengthy delay seems inexplicable, even if the thoughtful but problematic work will probably deeply divide audiences.  

The central character seems an unlikely candidate for a midlife crisis. A Baptist and successful insurance salesman who’s lived in Lincoln, Nebraska, his entire life, he has two grown daughters and a stable marriage to which he’s always been faithful. Nonetheless, he suddenly finds himself spiritually adrift, and his confused wife suggests that he talk to their pastor.

Reverend Todd (William Ragsdale) advises Ken to take some time for himself and go on vacation. So Ken heads to London, where he spent time while in the Air Force decades earlier. “London just seemed like the right distance,” he explains to the female bartender at the Leicester Square Sheraton where he’s staying. “It’s foreign, but not too foreign.”

During his time away, Ken encounters such figures as Pat (Heidi Armbruster), a sexy divorcee with a taste for bondage; Tamyra (Nana Mensah), the female bartender who at first merely tolerates his verbosity before developing a fondness for him; and her roommate Harry (Max Gordon Moore), a dissolute sculptor whose work-in-progress proves so beautiful it reduces Ken to uncontrollable sobbing.

Meanwhile, back in Nebraska, Ken’s oldest daughter Ashley (Annika Boras) seethes with resentment, while Nancy quietly goes about her days until, succumbing to loneliness, she begins spending time with the reverend’s father (Tom Bloom), who makes no secret of his romantic interest.

It must be said that once Letts establishes his provocative premise, he doesn’t develop in fully compelling fashion. The episodic play moves in fits and starts, marred at times by lugubrious pacing and narrative digressions. Our impatience with Ken’s aimless search for meaning sometimes approaches that of the people in his life.

Nonetheless, under the sensitive direction of David Cromer, Man From Nebraska resonates with deep emotion, its multidimensional characters pulsing with humanity. Not surprisingly, the proceedings are often drolly funny despite the serious subject matter, such as when Tamyra and Harry start chanting “Take drugs! Take drugs!” to a reluctant Ken, who we see shortly afterwards giddily dancing to electronica music.

Birney, a Tony winner last year for The Humans, plays a similar character here, that of an essentially decent everyman struggling with life’s challenges. He once again delivers a beautifully subtle, modulated performance that is here superbly complemented by O’Toole, who quietly conveys Nancy’s increasing despondency until a stunning display of emotion in the final scene.

The rest of the ensemble is equally fine, with Mensah particularly affecting as the beleaguered barkeep who introduces Ken to the joys of poetry, among other things. Takeshi Kata’s versatile set makes excellent use of the theater’s expansive stage, with images of giant cumulus clouds and bright stars hovering overhead, serving as a vivid representation of the cosmos that Ken struggles so hard to comprehend.

Venue: Second Stage Theatre, New York
Cast: Heidi Armbruster, Reed Birney, Tom Bloom, Annika Boras, Nana Mensah, Max Gordon Moore, Annette O’Toole, Kathleen Peirce, William Ragsdale
Playwright: Tracy Letts
Director: David Cromer
Set designer: Takeshi Kata
Costume designer: Sarah Laux
Lighting designer: Keith Parham
Music & sound design: Daniel Kluger
Presented by Second Stage Theatre

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