'Hold On to Me Darling': Theater Review

Doug Hamilton
Timothy Olyphant and C.J. Wilson in 'Hold On to Me Darling'
A lonesome cowboy ballad with too many verses and no chorus.

Timothy Olyphant plays a crossover country star whose mother's death throws his life into turmoil in Kenneth Lonergan's comedy about celebrity self-importance.

It's no secret that Kenneth Lonergan has a rocky relationship with the editing process. That conflict was at the root of the protracted battle over final cut of his brilliant but unwieldy 2011 feature, Margaret. It was also sorely evident in his last stage work to premiere in New York, Medieval Play, an interminable comedy sketch built around dim dudes in armor spouting deadpan anachronisms. There's a much better play nestling in the almost three hours of Hold On to Me Darling, but Lonergan seems unwilling to find it, leaving most of the poignancy buried between his disjointed scenes en route to a conclusion of unearned emotion.

The chief compensation in this Atlantic Theater Company premiere is very funny dialogue performed by a fine cast, led by Timothy Olyphant in a role that seems tailor-made for his laid-back swagger and sly humor. Neil Pepe's direction brings a light touch to the material that maximizes the laughs, but it also confines this portrait of a crossover country superstar's existential crisis to shallow depths. That's especially disappointing given Lonergan's proven gift for the soulful introspection of lost characters — whether in his films, You Can Count on Me, Margaret and the recent Manchester by the Sea, or in stage work from This Is Our Youth to The Starry Messenger.

One man's midlife angst was also the subject of that flawed but rewarding latter play. But Lonergan has traded the contemplative gaze for a glib tone here, which for most of the action makes him seem content to poke fun at his central character's pain, possibly as payback for his brushes with outrageous Hollywood entitlement. Coming from an artist so skilled at exploring human imperfections, the choice is both perplexing and exasperating.

While the play traces an arc that takes music and movie star Strings McCrane (Olyphant) from his mother's funeral to the consoling embrace of an estranged family member, it's shapeless and baggy. As entertaining as it is, there's a nagging sense that the character-driven material might have had better bones as a movie, or even a TV series, playing off the flavorfully etched screen cowboys Olyphant created in Deadwood and Justified.

The writing also limits what Olyphant can do to make Strings' restlessness meaningful. "Somebody's got to take me seriously even if I don't," he whines at one point. It's a funny line, but it also illustrates the problem of constructing a play around a spineless central character, blithely untroubled by his self-centered superficiality, and always looking beyond moments of satisfaction for something better. This is an insanely pampered man who doesn't know how to listen to anyone but himself, so why should we care? It's a testament to Lonergan's abilities that the closing scenes do uncover some heart and stir up some belated emotional investment. But without adequate foreshadowing, it comes out of nowhere.

Strings is in Kansas City shooting a big-budget space movie that's already behind schedule thanks to his "process" when he receives news of his beloved mother's sudden death. His worshipful personal assistant Jimmy (Keith Nobbs) attempts to console him with pat reassurances and porn, but Strings quickly spirals into weepy depression fueled by the certainty that, despite his success, his refusal to settle down made him a disappointment to his mother. His longing for someone to be proud of him is one of the play's underdeveloped central themes.

Strings accepts comfort from hotel masseuse Nancy (Jenn Lyon), an unhappily married mother who has been a fan since junior high, and he tries to reconnect with his cynical older half-brother Duke (C.J. Wilson), back in small-town Tennessee.

His distant cousin Essie (Adelaide Clemens) is the closest thing the play has to a moral compass and the only character indifferent to Strings' celebrity — not to mention wary of his neediness. A lonely kindergarten teacher who befriended his mother in her later life, Essie cuts through Strings' self-dramatization with her grounded kindness. But manipulative Nancy, who becomes a different person from one scene to the next, makes moves to block the potential challenge to her gold-digging plan. What she doesn't count on is Strings' seriousness about bailing on his music and film career to run a hometown feed store, leaving him on the hook for $400 million in lawsuits.

There's a lot to enjoy in this well-appointed production, which unfolds on a revolving succession of nicely detailed sets by Walt Spangler. All the actors are attuned to the quirky humor in Lonergan's script, which flirts with low-key satire in its skewering of the reality disconnect of celebrity. Lyon puts a unique spin on her comedic line readings that at times recalls the great Madeline Kahn, which makes up for wild inconsistencies in the way her character is written. Wilson delivers Duke's digs with just the right note of down-home snark. Nobbs tempers Jimmy's obsequiousness with genuine adoration. And Olyphant's natural charm ensures that Strings' unapologetic self-absorption remains more human than monstrous.

But aside from Jonathan Hogan in a small but significant role at the end, only the lovely Clemens (from Sundance Channel's Rectify) is able to mine the pathos trapped beneath the story's surface. That's too bad, as the terrific closing scene is genuinely moving, and might have been considerably more so had it not involved such an abrupt tonal shift.

Venue: Linda Gross Theater, New York
Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Keith Nobbs, Jenn Lyon, C.J. Wilson, Adelaide Clemons, Jonathan Hogan
Director: Neil Pepe
Playwright: Kenneth Lonergan
Set designer: Walt Spangler
Costume designer: Suttirat Anne Larlarb
Lighting designer: Brian MacDevitt
Sound designer: David Van Tieghem
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company