That remarkable actor Reed Birney, a Tony winner last season for his haunted portrayal of a dad in crisis in The Humans, plays a related role in Tracy Letts‘ Man From Nebraska, which opened last night at off-Broadway’s Second Stage. One night that has been much like any other in the life of this comfortably secure Bread Basket Baptist, Birney’s Ken Carpenter abandons bed for bathroom, where he begins weeping. Sobbing, really, the uncontrollable kind that makes audience members squirm in discomfort and freaks out his wife Nancy (Annette O’Toole). No, he’s not ill, he manages to blurt out. Not physically. He has, it turns out, lost his faith in God. Can he find it?
Ken’s subsequent journey echoes the kind of existential tripping popular in dramas from another era, and is the preoccupation of this not exactly new work from the prodigiously gifted author of August: Osage County, Bug and other juicy actors’ marathons. A gifted actor himself (in 2013 he won a Tony playing George in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?), Letts has a gift for couching life crises in the lumpy weave of quotidian affairs: Man From Nebraska begins not in the bathroom, but in the car, driving home from church, when Nancy observes that “they’re finally tearing down that ugly house.” It’s the sole line in the scene.
Neither wife nor grown daughter (Annika Boras) knows how to fix Ken, but their sympathetic pastor, Reverend Todd (William Ragsdale) isn’t rattled. Faith is hard work, he tells Ken, and you’re exhausted; you need a break. Get away. Nancy signs on to the idea, encouraging her husband to take a trip, break out of his routine, loosen up. And so Ken flies off to London, where he has not been since his days in the service. On the plane he meets danger in the form of a free-spirited divorcée (Heidi Armbruster), and in his hotel he banters with Tamyra (Nana Mensah), the agreeable African-British bar keep, who puts up with his White Guy cluelessness as she warms to his essential decency. A hilarious interlude in his hotel room with the divorcée affirms this assessment.
Ken eventually ends up in the studio where Tamyra models for her white boyfriend Harry (Max Gordon Moore), a sculptor who seems to have wandered in from a Tom Stoppard play (no problem there; he’s fine company). Tamyra needles Harry into pulling the draping off his Big Project, and the revelation is the second provocation for Ken’s weeping, though this time in exultation. It’s a quieter moment than that bathroom episode, and a searing one because it manages to come as a surprise and it is so utterly heartfelt.
Inevitably, the plot demands Ken’s reconciliation with Nancy, who has been quietly going to pieces, and Letts turns up the tension to a fevered boil before releasing the Carpenters – and us – back into a hard-won state of well-being. The chemistry between Birney and director David Cromer is nearly as palpable as Ken’s with the people who orbit him at home and in London. Cromer, whose memorable stagings of The Band’s Visit, Our Town and The Adding Machine were among the most exquisitely detailed shows of the past decade, is a devotee of understatement that heightens reality, and in Birney he has the perfect instrument for that.
The production transcends even that terrific performance with a company that has no weakness (among equals, Annette O’Toole gives yet another astoundingly transparent performance; Kathleen Peirce is scorching as Ken’s fading mother and Tom Bloom is touching as the pastor’s amorous father) and the support of a creative team solidly in line with electric tension between the playwright’s emotional richness and the director’s minimalism. A 2004 Pulitzer finalist just now making its way to New York, Man From Nebraska is a dazzler – a great show.
These days, you never know what you’re going to find when you enter the New York Theatre Workshop’s East Village space. The company follows up its fluorescent-lit army barracks environment for the David Oyelowo-Daniel Craig Othello with Geoff Sobelle’s The Object Lesson, for which the auditorium has been transformed into a hoarder’s wet dream: Cartons are stacked high, piled with the precious junk and detritus of what must be several lifetimes. There are no seats; we’re encouraged to wander through this maze of crap and find a perch.
Eventually, Sobelle appears and begins his baggy-pants baedeker, narrating the shaggy dog tale of his life and adventures here and abroad, wandering among the cardboard hills and dales, even cooking a quick meal at one point while guiding us along.
Some of the tale-telling involves playful effects, like recording monologue that becomes, in the replay, a dialogue leading to unexpected revelations. Too much of it goes nowhere; the show’s languors outweigh the sharper observations. But then there’s an ending that offers a kind of shocking payoff, as Sobelle executes a variation on the theme of clowns emerging from a tiny car. Staged in collaboration with director David Neumann, The Object Lesson seems overblown even in this modest space. And yet I won’t soon forget those last 15 minutes.