There are three great reasons to see the New York stage debut of Man From Nebraska, without even knowing what it’s about: Its author Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), its director David Cromer (Our Town), a cast that features Reed Birney (The Humans.) These remain even when you learn it’s about a man’s mid-life crisis.
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The story is in some ways as plain and straightforward as a meal in a Midwestern steakhouse. Ken Carpenter (Birney), a middle-aged God-fearing family man from Lincoln, Nebraska, wakes up one day and breaks down, realizing that he has lost his faith; he no longer believes in God.
Acting on advice from his pastor (William Ragsdale), he takes a break from his life, leaving his wife Nancy (Annette O’Toole) while he goes on vacation in London, where he eventually befriends a black woman bartender named Tamyra (Nana Mensah) and her flat-mate Harry, a sculptor (Max Gordon Moore.) He begins to take lessons from the sculptor, using the woman as his model.
There is a hint here of an epiphany for Ken – and a message in the play – when Harry the sculptor looks at Ken’s work and tells him to “exaggerate” it. “There’s no point in producing Tamyra again: she already exists. I mean, yes, you want to have the ability to do that: that’s craft. But your belief, your expression of your belief: that’s art.”
But Man from Nebraska exhibits none of the exaggeration of Letts’ other plays – the 2008 Pulitzer-winning play August: Osage County, or Letts’ exercises in gothic violence, Bug and Killer Joe. Originally produced in 2003 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company, Man from Nebraska is mild and slow-paced, closer in tone to Letts’ last play on Broadway, the 2010 Superior Donuts, which is the inspiration for a new sitcom of the same name on CBS.
Man from Nebraska is in no way a sitcom. Its humor is quieter, more indirect. Letts’ own Midwestern upbringing seems to come into play here, in his capturing of the culture of his characters, and the rhythm of their speech.
At one point, Rev. Todd has just explained to Nancy that his father had to eat his dead comrade in a POW camp during World War II in order to survive.
“Oh, that’s awful,” she replies, and follows that with “Can I get you some more coffee?”
There is surely a hint of mockery here, but, after all, how can you possibly react to cannibalism? How does one prepare for any of life’s traumas?
Letts’ exploration of the limits of taciturn good manners finds its best expression in the first conversation between Ken and the bartender Tamyra. To be polite, she asks: “And what brings you to London?”
He doesn’t know what to say.
After waiting patiently, Tamyra finally says “Don’t worry yourself,” and goes back to reading a book of poetry by Pablo Neruda.
“I don’t believe in God,” Ken blurts out.
“Join the club.”
“That’s why I’m here. Because I stopped believing in God.”
“Yanks toss you out for that now?”
Such rich exchanges make up for the vagueness in the central matters of the play. We never get details explaining Ken’s spiritual crisis; there are no stimulating intellectual or theological debates. Nor do we get a resolution so much as just an ending.
If little is explained, this winds up not mattering as much as it might in the hands of lesser theater artists. These artists feel in full control. The nine-member cast is impeccable. Birney’s many decades of theatrical experience – which he talked about at his Tony acceptance award last year – is present in every subtle gesture. Annette O’Toole is unrecognizable as Ken’s wife devoted Nancy, struggling to make sense of Ken’s dissatisfaction — an impressive performance that comes on the heels of her spectacular transformation as a transgender Southerner in Southern Comfort.
Those playgoers with the patience for the deliberately slow pace of the Second Stage production of Man from Nebraska will be confirmed in their belief in the power of theatrical mastery, even if they too have their doubts about a different kind of higher power.
Man from Nebraska is on stage at Second Stage (305 W 43rd Street, just west of 8th Ave.,New York, NY 10036) through March 12, 2017.
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