Monday, November 30, 2009

The Starry Messenger

A shaggy-haired student (Kieran Culkin) announces to his astronomy teacher (Matthew Broderick) that “overall I find your presentation very dry.” That’s exactly how I felt about Kenneth Lonergan's The Starry Messenger, which is having its world premiere by The New Group on Theatre Row.

I have learned over and over again through the years to avoid New Group productions, but I went to this one because my friend Merwin Goldsmith is in it. And I stayed for the whole, dull three hours because I wanted to go backstage afterwards to say hi to him. Friendship would be the only reason to sit through -- or star in -- this show, which is directed by Lonergan, (who went to school with Broderick) and also stars J. Smith Cameron, (wife of the playwright), Catalina Sandino Moreno (in photo with Broderick), Stephanie Cannon, Grant Shaud and Missy Yager. (Merwin replaced the previously announced Jonathan Hadary.)

As my friend Carolyn so rightly pointed out as we were riding home in a taxi, it’s a bad idea to make a boring person the main character of a play. Broderick is an astronomy teacher, Mark Williams, who shows no sign of spark in his teaching at the old Hayden Planetarium (just before it is torn down), in his marriage or even in his affair with a nursing student (Moreno). The playwright has said the idea sprang from a course he and Broderick took at the planetarium when they were in high school. He says he wrote the play specifically for Broderick, which makes me think of the saying, with friends like that . . .

Merwin plays an elderly hospitalized cancer patient who at the start seems on his deathbed but by the end appears read to go out dancing. I would say that’s not a hospital, that’s Lourdes! His daughter visits, and their relationship also takes major turns, going from strained to loving and back to strained. I have no idea what they have to do with the rest of the story, but at least they weren’t boring.

What spark the play does have comes from its set designer, Derek McLane, with the light shows he creates as part of the planetarium scenes and the lovely night skyline of Central Park above the set. He also does a nice job of establishing the four different location -- the classroom at the planetarium, Mark’s living room, his lover’s living room and the hospital. They remain set up across the stage, with the action shifting from place to place through the movement of the actors and Jason Lyons’s lighting.

For me, my reward was getting to talk to Merwin after the show. We met in 2001 when I interviewed him for the Ritual chapter of my book Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors. It has been a blessing to know him.

The Starry Messenger is scheduled to play through Dec. 12 on Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. (between 9th & 10th Ave.). Tickets are available by calling (212) 279-4200. For more information, visit

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