”MAN FROM NEBRASKA” Review - Off Broadway and a Winner

Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer Prize winner for “AUGUST : OSAGE COUNTY”(2007 ), penned some fourteen years ago, another play now getting it’s New York premiere at SECOND STAGE THEATRE- 305 W. 43rd St. by 8th Ave. in Manhattan.  It’s entitled “MAN FROM NEBRASKA”, and that’s as honest a name for this story as is the play and it’s current production most ably directed by David Cromer, best known for his Barrow Street  Theatre revival of “OUR TOWN” a few years ago and quite a string of successes ever since. This production opened Feb. 15th for a limited run and has now been extended to March 26th.


Scenic, Costume, Lighting, and Original Music and Sound Design by Takeshi Kata, Sarah, Laux, Keith Parham, and Daniel Kluger respectively, are uniformly EXCELLENT.


The title character is portrayed by the recent recipient of the Tony Award for Best Male Supporting Player in last season’s Broadway production of “THE HUMANS”, Reed Birney and in this production one can see why in short order that the talents of such an artist as Mr. Birney’s caliber should be so celebrated as one of the finest actors in our midst.  He, as Ken Carpenter, the eponymous character, carries this two hour excursion of a person’s journey through a profound crisis of faith.

While hardly ever being off stage, and never not being riveting by a seemingly effortless rendering of the model of middle-aged, middle American manhood, who, after it would appear that America’s Dream of success and contentment, at least that was observed and pondered at the beginning of this century. It is still remaining intact even after Sept 11th of it’s first year, suddenly and literally overnight, could inexplicably and worse irrevocably, crumble.


At first we see him in the company of his still handsome wife of more than two decades Nancy, (the fabulous Annette O’ Toole) where in a series of quick, sparsely dialogued scenes, so terse in banality and innocuous charm that they provoked titters, if not out right guffaws from the house. They involve a short car ride to visit his dying mother in the nursing home, a meal in a neighborhood eatery, and a Baptist Sunday worship service replete with hymn sung in unforced sincerity. Then, in the middle of the night, he awakens from their shared bed, with some unspeakable dread. A rush to the bathroom with perhaps a hope of vomiting this sudden illness, but instead he’s afflicted with a crying jag that will NOT stop. His wife gets up and is naturally concerned, if not seriously frightened , that her husband is in the throes of perhaps a fatal convulsion. She eventually learns from him between tears and muffled screams that he” no longer believes in God”.  How, why, and exactly when this happened she  sensitively tries to elicit from him, but to no avail, other than to learn that ,“the stars have no meaning.”


What ensues from that revelation of despair for him and his family, which in addition to his loyal and dutiful spouse is his talk with his all too present daughter, Ashley (Annika  Boras), with whom Ken runs a  successful insurance business.  There is another daughter alluded to but, characteristically to her, is never seen. Ashley, endeavors to listen to her father’s lamentation, but cannot without being judgmental and decidedly parochial. Both she and her mother, Nancy recommend for Ken to talk with their pastor ,Rev. Todd (William Ragsdale) which is as logical to Ken at first, yet becomes increasingly feckless once so engaged with his minister.


No, something far more radical becomes clear to Ken what he must do, and in a word, it is to escape; at least for a time. He’s not had a vacation truly away for twenty years and that this must be a sojourn, sans spouse, and for an indeterminate time.  So he’s off to London, where on route in the plane he encounters a sultry businesswoman named  Pat (a fetching Heidi Armbruster), who’s a divorcee and rather randy fellow traveler to Britain and all but invites him to join the multi-mile high club there and then on board.


While remaining in London for a significant amount of time Ken becomes acquainted as well with Tamyra (a brilliant Nana Menash) who initially serves as his well tipped bartender confidant,  but eventually becomes a new friend of genuine affection and admiration along with her intimate flat- mate, Harry Brown, (a fascinating Max Gordon Moore) who besides possessing a razor sharp verbal wit, apparently is revealed to be a semi starving sculptor of considerable talent, skill and dedication.


Meanwhile, Nancy the Nebraska wife is patiently nearly to point of Job awaiting Ken to come to his senses and return to her loving and understanding arms.  Her understanding as the days increase becomes increasingly bewildered and not helped by their daughter, Ashley one bit. Nancy’s life becomes even more complicated with her loneliness by the introduction of the pastor’s father, Bud Todd( an authoritative Tom Bloom) with whom she’s been keeping chaste company while Bud treies to convince her that ken is never coming back and that she could do worse than shack up with equally lonely self and sexually charged self.


Ken’s dying mother in the home, Cammie   (Kathleen Pierce convincingly rendering the deterioration of Nancy’s mother-in-law)  soon dies in somewhat ambiguous circumstances in the nursing home. Ken is then forced to return from his soul searching abroad and continue it with increased passion back in the middle of America. What results in terms of his marriage, and Ms. O’Toole’s superb physical communication towards her husband and what he has done to her, and to them would be sinful for me to attempt to describe. I entreat you dear reader, to attend this production between now and March 26th and behold it for yourself. You’ll thank me later.


Ticket at at the Second Stage website  or by calling the Second Stage Box Office at 212-246-4422


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