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A CurtainUp Review
Man From Nebraska
By Elyse Sommer
Yet Ken Carpenter is like those earlier trailer trash characters attacked by a destructive bug. This time the bug's target for assault is the place where Ken's faith in God has resided since he was "saved" at age twelve. It's a faith shared by his wife and passed on to his two daughters.
Though this methodical, routine tethered man's attempt to deal with his spiritual crisis makes for quiet introspective story, it takes on the same issues explored and exploded in Killer Joe and Bug — the mythical indestructibility of family values and all-powerful institutions. No wonder Letts structured his script like a symphony, grouping twenty-nine short scenes into eight movements that parallel Ken's search for a life away from the comfort of his traditional but stifling life style.
Although both of Letts's raunchy thrillers had New York productions (as well as numerous others), Man From Nebraska had no such extended life. That's despite being nominated for the Pulitzer that his next play, August: Osage County won.
But better late than never. A beautifully staged and acted production is now at Second Stage.
As he recently did with the stage adaptation of the indie film The Band's Visit , David Cromer draws us into the lives of people whose comfortable but dull existence is shaken up by an unanticipated event. For the bored residents of a remote Israeli village, the unintended visit of an Egyptian band temporarily rouses the villagers from their lethargy. For the Carpenters it's Ken's sudden and inexplicable loss of his religious faith which has a more painful and much longer lasting effect on him and his family.
Reed Birney, one of the theater's best and busiest actors, once again dazzles as he takes us through Ken's journey from spiritual breakdown to an uncertain new life. The first six scenes take us through the routines of his life with his wife Nancy (the also excellent Annette O'Toole).
We see the Carpenters in their car going to church and joining in the hymn singing when they get there. Next we watch them having a meal in a restaurant and visiting his mother in a nursing home. Their day ends watching TV and preparing for bed with prayer and passion-less good-night kiss. If all this sounds pretty dull, indeed it is. But those scenes flash by. Each lasts just a few minutes but together they purposefully establish this picture of unquestioning conformity, a relationship that's tranquil but which has lost any steam it once had. When this "movement" of Lett's symphony concludes with Ken's middle of the night emotional meltdown. You may not understand just what caused it, but there's no missing the anguish that has him in tears.
The rest of the first act sees Ken still painfully confused. There's no help from Ashley (Annika Boras), the married daughter who works at his insurance company. She can't understand why the faith he passed on to her has deserted him. Neither can his wife.
Reverend Todd (William Ragsdale), whose sermon urging his flock to see how they can grow as Christians may have triggered Ken's inner turmoi, is more specifically helpful. He suggests that Ken take some time to get away and catch up on the vacations he apparently never took.
Nancy, (perhaps as her way to follow Reverend Todd's sermon about growing as a Christian?), agrees to Ken's going off. But neither she, daughter Ashley or Reverend Todd didn't expect that holiday to take Ken quite so far from home and for so long. By the time the intermission rolls around, a British barkeep named Tamyra (Nana Mensah) is pouring Ken a drink called Salty Dog because she realizes he needs "something a little savory. Or maybe even a little bitter. . .for his adventure. . . for his narrative."
Since I'm recommending that you take advantage of this opportunity to see this play's overdue New York premiere, I'll refrain from detailing what happens during Ken's sojourn away from his Nebraskan life. Suffice it to say, that it lasts six months and doesn't really end with a permanent homecoming — or, for that matter, a clear-cut way to live the rest of his life.
I can tell you, however, that Tamyra is right. Ken's self-searching holiday is an adventure. The meet-up with Pat Monday (Heidi Armbruster), a horny businesswoman as well as his friendship with Tamyra and her artist boyfriend Harry Brown (Max Gordon Moore) allow Birney to deepen his rich portrait of this midwestern Everyman. That includes one wild and riotously funny dance scene.
While the focus is on Ken's adventure, there are some scenes back in Nebraska that show how Nancy must contend with the uncertainty of Ken's return, the care of his dying mother Cammie (Kathleen Peirce), as well as the unwanted advances of Bud Todd (an amusing Tom Bloom), Reverend Todd's horny widowed dad.
Though this is Birney's show, the entire cast is top notch. Annette O'Toole is particularly moving as the wife who'd prefer the status quo. It's this need for people to let a relationship grow and change that makes Man From Nebraska universal, no matter what your religious beliefs.
Mr. Cromer very effectively has the many scenes play out as filmic close-ups. The stagecraft overall is outstanding, especially Keith Parham's stunning lighting design and sound designer Daniel Kluger's incidental music.
Reed Birney's bravura performance as well as his colleagues' terrific support are enagaing enough to make ignore questions about how Ken simultaneously maintains his Nebraska business, his home and his "adventure." If Mr. Letts were writing this play today, he might attribute an evangelical Christian like Ken's loss of faith to his church's helping to elect a president whose morals are counter to theirs. That said, it's easy enough for theatergoers to fill in the blanks themselves.
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Man From Nebraska by Tracy Letts
Directed By David Cromer
Cast: Heidi Armbruster (Pat Monday), Reed Birney (KenCarpenter), Tom Bloom (Bud Todd), Annika Boras (Ashley Kohl), Nana Mensah (Tamyra), Max Gordon Moore (Harry Brown), Annette O'Toole (Nancy Carpenter), Kathleen Peirce (Cammie Carpenter), William Ragsdale (Reverend Todd).
Scenic design by Takeshi Kata
Costume design by Sarah Laux
Lighting design by Keith Parham
Original music and sound design by Daniel Kluger
Movement Consulting: Patrick McCullum
Stage Manager: Cynthis Cahill
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 Minutes
2nd Stage 305 West 43rd Street
From 1/26/17; opening 2/15/17; closing 3/31/17.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 2/11/15 preview performance
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