Passivity is a dicey commodity at the best of times. Take the case of Mark Williams, an uptight, by-the-book, middle-aged New Yorker who has never been able to elevate his lifelong interest in astronomy beyond that of an elementary lecturer at the city’s Hayden planetarium where he has slogged without promotion for years. He’s a decent enough bloke, always helpful and eager to please, but desperately in need of a personality transplant. Unsurprisingly, his lectures lack sparkle, and, not to put too fine a point on it, he’s asphyxiatingly boring.
He also happens to be the central character in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Starry Messenger (2009). The good news is that he’s played by Matthew Broderick, a Broadway and Hollywood star since his teens and one of the few actors I can think of capable of making someone as chronically dull as Mark quietly charismatic. But it’s not an easy ask. With dynamism in short supply, Lonergan has to create a set of circumstances that will accommodate his protagonist’s apathy and keep audiences involved.
Furthermore, his domestic life is as mundane as his workplace. His wife Anne (Elizabeth McGovern) is a school teacher constantly giving him a hard time over family trivialities such as Christmas or dinner arrangements, while he, in turn, exchanges harsh words with his (unseen) teenage son, who spends his time in the basement tinkering untalentedly with his electric guitar. The result is ongoing frustration and guilt, for which he is forever apologising.
Then the inevitable happens. A chance encounter with a personable would-be Puerto Rican nurse called Angela (Rosalind Eleazar) leads to a tentative (what else?), albeit full-blown romance that, just in time, becomes the play’s focus and center of gravity. And although this emotional windfall in Mark’s life hardly changes his personality, like the cosmos that looms large in the set design by Chiara Stevenson, Mark is forced to contemplate his own personal space as he confronts issues for which there are no easy answers. Like much of the play – which is basically about a small man in a cosmos he’s struggling to comprehend – the ending is ambiguous but veering towards the positive.
Lonergan – whose first stage hit in 1996 was the much acclaimed This Is Our Youth and whose more recent screenplays You Can Count On Me and the Oscar-winning Manchester by the Sea demonstrate a superb ear for dialogue and a sharp eye for characterisation where life’s eternal verities are concerned – wrings pathos from the modest but overlong story he is telling. It’s even quite humorous at times, notably in the scenes involving an aggressively confrontational, intellectually challenged woman of a certain age (Jenny Galloway) who doesn’t know whether the universe is in the galaxy or vice versa; and Ian (Sid Sagar), an in-your-face student who arrogantly takes it on himself to grade out of ten Mark’s strengths and failures as a lecturer.
There’s another fine performance by Jim Norton as Norman, a hospitalized, cancer-riddled septuagenarian. But his scenes with Angela, who is lovingly attending him, seem to belong to another play entirely. They have nothing to do with the central issues, and would appear to exist only for the character to deliver an anti-Catholic rant to the deeply religious Angela after tragedy strikes her life.
A rather underpowered McGovern, battling to give Anne a third dimension, hints at her character’s potential, but there’s not enough meat in the role to make a meal of. There’s also an excellent cameo from Sinead Matthews as Norman’s conflicted daughter Doris.
But it’s Broderick around whom the play revolves. And he’s very good indeed. If only the play itself, which benefits from Lonergan’s dialogue, sensitivity and empathetic qualities, had a less rambling sense of direction, it might have been really compelling.