27 March 2016

'Hold On to Me Darling'

I seem to be running into a spate of plays recently where I come away not knowing what the playwright is trying to communicate.  I might suspect that I’m losing my faculties, except that I haven’t been alone in my confusion: other’s in the audience have been confounded as well, in particular my companion, and when I check the reviews, I find that some of the writers express the same lack of understanding that I experienced.  It happened again the other evening when my theater partner Diana and I met at the Atlantic Theater Company in Chelsea to see the world première of Kenneth Lonergan’s Hold On to Me Darling.  Since Hold On was the first Lonergan play I’ve seen (the only films he wrote that I’ve seen are Analyze This and Gangs of New York), I can’t tell if this is a common characteristic of his dramaturgy or if Hold On is an outlier.

Hold On to Me Darling, which Lonergan reportedly wrote in 2004, started previews at ATC’s Linda Gross Theater on 24 February and opened on 14 March; it’s currently scheduled to close on 17 April, after a two-week extension from 3 April.  The production is under the direction of Neil Pepe, ATC’s artistic director (Speed-the-Plow on Broadway, 2008-09; Hands on a Hardbody, Broadway, 2013; for ATC: David Mamet’s Romance, 2005; Adam Rapp’s Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling, 2011; Ethan Coen’s Happy Hour, 2011; John Guare’s 3 Kinds of Exile, 2013 – see my reports on the last four on ROT: 21 August 2013, 6 November 2011, 20 December 2011, 27 June 2013, respectively).

I included a brief profile of the Atlantic Theater Company in my report on Cloud Nine (26 October 2015), so I’ll proceed with a short bio of playwright Kenneth Lonergan.  Born in the Bronx in New York City in 1962, Lonergan went to the Manhattan prep school, the Walden School, where one of his classmates was Matthew Broderick (who later appeared in Lonergan’s 2009 play The Starry Messenger and his film Margaret, released in 2011).  Walden had (the school’s now closed) a strong theater program, and  Lonergan began writing plays there under the encouragement of the drama teacher.  He enrolled first at  Wesleyan University and then at New York University’s Playwriting Program; while still a student, his first play, The Rennings Children, won the 1982 Young Playwrights Festival Award and was produced at the festival founded by Stephen Sondheim.  Upon graduating in 1985, Lonergan joined Naked Angels, an Off-Broadway troupe, but he sustained himself by working as a speechwriter for the EPA and script-writer for corporate industrials for Weight Watchers and Fujifilm. 

The writer’s first stage success was the play This is Our Youth in 1996, produced by The New Group.  (The play was revived Off-Broadway by the Second Stage Theatre in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014 with Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin.  The Broadway production was nominated for a 2015 Tony as Best Revival of a Play.)  Along with his stage work, Lonergan also shared writing credit for the films Analyze This (1999) and The Gangs of New York (2002) and he wrote and directed 2000’s Oscar-winner You Can Count on Me and the problematic Margaret (filmed in 2005; released in 2011); the latter movie starred Broderick opposite Lonergan’s wife, J. Smith-Cameron (who both also starred in the stage production of the writer’s self-directed play, The Starry Messenger, 2009, The New Group at the Acorn Theater on Manhattan’s Theatre Row).  Hold On to Me Darling is only Lonergan’s sixth play in two decades.

Lonergan’s reputation is for composing “insightful” character studies and for finding drama in the seemingly commonplaces of life.  He also has mined his personal history for themes and subject matter.  Because the playwright’s mother divorced his father and then remarried, the playwright grew up in a blended family of siblings, half-siblings, and step-siblings.  Relationships among brothers, sisters, and other family members are important themes in his plays, as we’ll see is true of Hold On to Me.  Lonergan also drew on the struggle of his grandmother with Alzheimer’s for his play The Waverly Gallery (2000; nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2001), based on his grandmother’s art gallery in Greenwich Village. 

Hold On to Me Darling focuses on Strings (né Clarence) McCrane, “the third biggest crossover star in the history of country music.”  He’s returned to Beaumont, Tennessee, his hometown, for his mother’s funeral and he’s planning to stay.  Strings (Timothy Olyphant) has started to question his celebrity life and his failure to become the settled regular guy he says his mother had wanted him to become. He’s decided to ditch his fame and his career in films and country music—but to do that, he has to quit a space-adventure film he’s making in Kansas City and cancel a world tour to promote his latest album, Ain’t No Time for Cryin’.  Needless to say, the producers of both the Hollywood movie and the concert tour aren’t pleased with Strings’s precipitous decision.

But however sincere Strings’s desire to return to his roots is, he has a problem leaving behind all the perks of his life as a star.  He can’t help making a play for every attractive woman he meets, starting the with the masseuse at the Kansas City hotel where he’s learned of his mother’s passing.  Nancy (Jenn Lyon) is married—not especially happily, it turns out—but though she resists at first—rather half-heartedly—she’s a really big fan of Strings, so it doesn’t take much for her to succumb by the end of the first scene.  Later, in Beaumont, he takes a shine to the young widow Essie (Adelaide Clemens, an Australian actress making her stage début), who’s his cousin (second, twice removed—so it’s okay, especially in Tennessee).  Strings also can’t do without his personal assistant, Jimmy (Keith Nobbs), who’s followed after the star like a devoted puppy for 12 years and later declares Strings can always find him “on the corner of Beck and Call.”  (The casting here is exemplary in terms of visually enhancing this need-filling relationship: Olyphant is six feet tall and Nobbs is all of 5′6″.  When they stand next to one another, that master-puppy dog allusion is all the more apt.)  Meanwhile, he’s pretty much neglected his relatives back home except to pay them lip service.  His half-brother Duke (C. J. Wilson) is swimming in debt with a wife and two hyperactive kids in a small house (“an ashtray with furniture in it,” Duke calls it) and he never paid any attention to the news that cousin Essie’s father and husband died together in a drag-racing accident even though she wrote to tell him.  Strings and his much-married mother—he and Duke have different fathers, and there’ve been several additional “step-daddies” since—were never as close in life (she was censorious and acid-tongued) as he appears to feel about her after death. 

Sitting with Duke after the funeral, Strings suggests he might like to work in Ernie’s feed store where he worked as a teenager.  Duke can’t take this seriously because, he reminds his brother, he didn’t do very well there before and he’d be getting up in the early morning to open the store and have to listen to the boss tell the same lies about himself day after day.  What Strings, who’s meanwhile married Nancy, the Kansas City masseuse, ends up doing is  buying the feed store from Ernie, with his brother as partner, and sets out to run it himself.  But the crowds that gather around the store, blocking the entrance to any potential customers, are there not to buy feed for their pets or livestock, but to get the famous singing and movie star’s autograph.  Duke and Nancy both urge Strings to go out and sign the damn autographs so the fans will leave, but the stubborn singer refuses and the store does zero business.  Only Essie comes by, on the pretense of buying a bag of cat food, but Strings’s return to his roots and the simple life isn’t working out the way he’d imagined—and Nancy’s none too happy about the situation, either.  While Strings and Duke sit around waiting for customers, Strings gets a letter informing him that his film producer and his record label are suing him  for breach-of-contract to the tune of $400 million; Strings tells Jimmy he’s only worth about $200 mil.  The star’s wife and brother press him just to go on and finish the movie and do the tour, but Strings continues to stonewall.  Out of nowhere, Jimmy arrives with an unexpected visitor in tow.

I warn you now that what follows is a spoiler, so skip this paragraph if you plan to see Hold On to Me and want to be surprised, for Lonergan executes a deus ex machine to finish the play.  Everyone, including Strings, has forgotten that back in the Kansas City hotel room, the singer got on the phone to one of his posse somewhere and ordered the lackey to find his long-lost father and get him to the funeral.  This little bit of business is never mentioned again for the rest of the two hours and 45 minutes the play runs until the last 15 minutes or so.  Of course, it’s Mitch McCrane (Jonathan Hogan), the father Strings believes ran out on his mother and him 31 years earlier when he was eight years old, that Jimmy has in the car outside the store.  Strings is tentative about meeting Mitch, whom Jimmy declares seems like a very nice guy, but finally relents.  Needless to say, the truth of Mitch’s leaving little Clarence and his mother isn’t quite what she had told her son, and as the lights fade, the two men come to a tentative reconciliation (although nothing else is resolved).

Considering how much attention Lonergan gets these days (the Broadway production of This Is Our Youth was eagerly anticipated and well received), Hold On to Me Darling was a disappointment.  As I admitted, I’d never seen his stage work before, so I can’t say if this is second-tier Lonergan or typical of his writing.  (According to Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal, Hold On to Me “is as fine as its first four predecessors.”  The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney and New York’s Jesse Green disagree.)  If the basic plot line isn’t enough of a cliché on its own, Lonergan’s dialogue is full of canned phrases that sound like they were cribbed from every other version of that story.  What’s more, his characters repeat many of them almost verbatim throughout the play and each scene is basically a loop of all the others as the singer explains to a different character what he wants to do and why.  (This play did not have to be almost three hours; just cutting out some of the repetition would have shaved off half an hour.)  The character line-up is also contrived to create “conflict.”  To finish the dramaturgical problems I saw, the play doesn’t end, it just stops—and to make even that happen, Lonergan uses that near deus ex machina.  Mitch’s arrival doesn’t actually conclude the issues of the play, so it isn’t a full-fledged deus, but it makes the singer feel better—which itself is pretty contrived—and I suspect that’s supposed to please the audience). 

The play’s supposed to be an examination of the price of fame, fortune, and narcissism (according to the ATC’s publicity), and though my description makes it sound like a melodrama, it’s meant to be a comedy.  As a matter of fact, except for Diana and me, most of the audience laughed at the jokes (I couldn’t see why they were funny most of the time—it’s like the others all had a crib-sheet which we didn’t get) and stood at the curtain call.  Maybe you just have to be attuned to Lonergan humor and I’m not.  In any case, I found little in Hold On to Me Darling moving either to laughter or sympathy.  (I confess, the ending is a put-up little tear-jerker of a scene, but even there, it’s so artificial and disconnected from the rest of the play—Mitch, unlike Strings’s departed mother, isn’t a character in the story after that passing mention in scene one—that I hardly choked up.)  The entire play is so set up, from the situation to the characters’ personalities, that it defies belief.  Diana called it a situation comedy, and it bears many of the earmarks of that hackneyed form (which I stopped watching on TV back in the 1980s!): characters with established and immutable personality traits are plopped into a manufactured set of circumstances to which they react in predictable ways.  Like sitcoms, Hold On to Me has all the depth of a TV commercial; rather than “exploring” the burdens of celebrity and popularity, Lonergan’s play exploits them for cheap humor.  (I should probably count Hold On to Me Darling as a lesser example of Lonergan’s dramaturgy because his reputation seems better than my response to this play.  That means I should make a point of going to a production of another of his plays, ideally a revival of This Is Our Youth, before I declare that I won’t be a fan of his.  It may take an act of will to do that, though.)

I have to place some of the blame for this shallowness on the actors and, therefore, on director Pepe.  The acting is good, but not great; it all feels a little forced, as if the actors know it isn’t real and try extra hard to cover that up.  The entire cast (with the possible exception of Hogan in his cameo portrayal of Mitch) seems to be pushing hard, trying to be . . . what?  Believable? Truthful?  Sympathetic?  Whatever it is, they don’t seem to be able to get there and as a result, they all end up coming off as near caricatures of Southern or show-biz types.  (The Tennessee twang, however, was handled well under the coaching of Stephen Gabis—who also guided the other dialects.  I presume, though, that Olyphant mostly had to recycle his Kentucky accent from his five-year stint on FX’s Justified.)  I pretty much knew what the characters were all going to do before they did it!  The worst offender is Olyphant who seems to be working overtime to convince us, or perhaps himself, that he’s sincere (and, thus, that Strings is as well).  Pepe either guided them into these characterizations or didn’t pull them back when they strayed into that trap.  Granted, Lonergan’s dialogue is itself an impetus for clichéd acting if not conscientiously held in check, but that doesn’t excuse the director and cast from succumbing.  (This, too, is a trait of sitcoms: one-dimensional acting.)

The only standout, as I noted, is Jonathan Hogan’s estranged father.  Maybe because his one scene is self-contained and he has no obligation to meet a predetermined portrayal, leaving him independent of the sitcom curse, but his Mitch was not just a surprise in terms of the plot, but in terms of the quality of the performance.  This Mitch was honest, open-faced, sympathetic (without asking us—or his son—for sympathy), and genuine.  He is, in fact, the nice man Jimmy says he is.  When he pulls out his scrapbook of Strings’s career, it’s not a contrived, premeditated plea for a piece of his son’s success, but a simple expression of a plain man’s pride.  No one else in the play, least of all Olyphant’s Strings, comes close to this kind of stage truth.  (The closest, oddly enough, was Keith Nobbs’s Jimmy.  He’s written to be a suck-up, but his devotion to Strings comes off as real.  Why he idolizes Strings is unrevealed—it doesn’t seem to be just reflected glory—but that it’s real is not in doubt.)

The physical production was fine, with a multi-set turntable at the center with several rooms (at the Kansas City hotel, Duke’s den, Essie’s living room, the hotel room and bar in Beaumont, the viewing room at the funeral parlor, and the feed store), each a corner of an atmospherically, almost hyper-realistic place created by scenic designer Walt Spangler revolving into view for each scene.  These were all lit nicely by Brian MacDevitt with country-music recordings designed by David Van Tieghem (who also composed the original songs that Strings occasionally warbles on stage) covering the intervals; the character-appropriate costumes were the work of Suttirat Anne Larlarb. 

The reviews of Hold On to Me were mixed, though the majority were more positive than I’ve been (though nearly all the writers found the play’s length both unnecessary and detrimental).  Joe Dziemianowicz of the New York Daily News wrote, for instance, that the production “is flecked with laughs and some terrific acting but the nearly 3-hour play suffers from aimlessness.”  “Lonergan’s script isn’t toothy enough to work as a satire on celebrity,” the Newsman stated. “So it unspools like a low-stakes southern-fried sitcom.”  With objections to Olyphant’s performance (“radiates . . . little star power”) and Pepe’s direction, along with the script, Dziemianowicz complained that “the play loses sharp focus.”  Though he praised the rest of the cast, he closed by declaring: “Wish Lonergan’s new play gave us more to hold onto.”

In Long Island’s Newsday, Linda Winer called Hold On to Me a “sprawling and marvelous comedy,” and though “[w]e really ought to be laughing at” all the goings-on in the play, it “keeps pulling us back from the edge of smugness.”  This, Winer explained, is because the dramatist “writes so gorgeously that familiar types keep surprising with the depth of their charm and humanity.”  Pepe directs all this “with gentle mercilessness” on Spangler’s “hyper-ambitious” set, adding that “the cast . . . is spectacular.”  Ben Brantley of the New York Times described Hold On to Me as “a poignant comic study of the bad faith and bad behavior of a narcissistic celebrity and those around him” and “a tragicomic commentary on a culture ruled by the religion of fame” by “a writer with one of the best ears around for the language of the morally challenged,” and praised Olyphant’s Strings as “entertainingly irritating.”  The Timesman explained that “although this production could still be trimmed by 10 or 15 minutes, the strength of ‘Darling’ is in its loquacity.  It lets its characters talk and talk, and the more we listen, the more we learn about how they hear themselves.”  He felt that Lonergan’s “dialogue—and the marvelous cast members that deliver it—endows them with spontaneous life.”  Spangler’s sets and Larlarb’s costumes, Brantley reported, “feed the show’s radiant verisimilitude.” 

Calling Lonergan “the most talented American playwright of his generation” in the Wall Street Journal, Teachout affirms that the playwright “blends satire with strong, straightforward emotion to complex and poignant effect” in Hold On to Me.  While the play “appears to be a comic retelling of the thrice-told tale of the corrupting effects of celebrity,” the WSJ reviewer contended that the “foolery has a smart, piquant screwball flavor reminiscent of Preston Sturges.”  Teachout remarked that Hold On to Me “would profit from some judicious tightening,” but added, “I don’t begrudge Mr. Lonergan a fair amount of discursiveness when the results are so involving—and so beautifully performed.”  The New York Observer’s Rex Reed reported that the play “is long and talky, but it’s worth a bit of patience just to see how imaginative the author of This is Our Youth can get.”  The “lengthy and meandering narrative,” Reed affirmed, “could be trimmed by at least half an hour with no damage to the continuity, but I guess Mr. Lonergan has earned his verbosity.”  The Observer review-writer asserted that the dramatist “writes full-length plays with humor mined from curious character observations, not punch lines, and in Hold On to Me Darling, director Neil Pepe leaves no opportunity for wit unexplored.”  The final surprise scene, Reed declared, “tenderizes everything that precedes it.  You go  away in tears.”  Summing up the play as “splendid, rollicking and thoughtful stuff,” Reed concluded: “With Kenneth Lonergan and ace production values in full focus, the time, effort and attention required offer their own rewards.”

In the “Goings On About Town” section of the New Yorker, the review writer was fairly dismissive of Hold On to Me: “With big accents, broad humor, and a satirical edge, it all plays like something from the Coen brothers, right up until a hard—and not entirely satisfying—turn toward sincerity at the end.”  Jesse Green, in New York magazine, called Hold On to Me “ lumpy and scattershot” and, comparing the play to “rural-slumming satires” like TV’s supremely silly Green Acres, asks: “But is it a satire?”  “Very little of Hold On to Me Darling is funny,” Green reported, and “the tone is too wobbly, and the pace too languorous, for its teeth to gain any purchase on skin.”  “On the other hand,” Green continued, “Lonergan can’t possibly mean to be serious; the story is too ludicrous,” adding disappointedly, “Nothing the director Neil Pepe tries to shape with the material can make a graceful exit of that.”  The New York reviewer lamented that it’s “all very mystifying, and a little sad” and that even the cast is bereft, “brewing what amounts to a tempest in a crockpot”; even Olyphant “spends most of the play leadfooting the accelerator, trying to make it go,” which Green asserted “it doesn’t.” 

In Variety, Frank Rizzo characterized Hold On to Me as “funny, beguiling but overwritten” and but for Olyphant’s performance, it “would be one long, achy-breaky night.”  Though “entertaining and engaging,” and “performed by a top-rate ensemble and directed with finesse,” Rizzo found “its long reach for political and social resonance is a stretch.”  Ultimately, the Variety reviewer felt, “the play veers into sitcom-silly and loses its sharpness, as quirky bromides, flashes of dark humor and delicious turns of phrases prove less and less effective.”  In the end, though, Rizzo found that in the final scene with Mitch, “suddenly Strings and the play find themselves.”

Time Out New York’s David Cote called Hold On to Me “a scruffy, shaggy and touchingly earnest portrait of celebrity in free fall” with a script that’s “sharp and funny.”  The play, Cote acknowledged, “is almost defiantly overwritten and leisurely in its handling of character and plot. . . .  But even when Lonergan’s not sure of the way, he’s so damn fun to follow.”  Pepe’s directing is “perfectly balanced” and the cast is “firmly grounded.”  Cote concluded: “Strung out though you may feel, you won’t want to let go.”  Isabella Biedenharn of Entertainment Weekly warned that the description of Hold On to Me “sounds like a bummer,” but continued that “with Timothy Olyphant (Justified) anchoring a pitch-perfect cast, and with Lonergan’s absolutely uproarious script, it’s the farthest thing from tragedy.”  While act one provides “a grand wave of laughter,” during the “slightly too long” second half of the play, “the momentum slips a little . . . and the ending feels a bit anticlimactic.”  David Rooney’s Hollywood Reporter review of Hold On to Me began with his “Bottom Line”: “A lonesome cowboy ballad with too many verses and no chorus.”  He elucidated this capsule assessment: “There’s a much better play nestling in the almost three hours of Hold On to Me Darling, but Lonergan seems unwilling to find it, leaving most of the poignancy buried between his disjointed scenes en route to a conclusion of unearned emotion.”  “The chief compensation” for this, Rooney reported, “is very funny dialogue performed by a fine cast” and Pepe’s direction, which “brings a light touch to the material that maximizes the laughs, but it also confines this portrait of a crossover country superstar’s existential crisis to shallow depths.”  The HR reviewer lamented Lonergan’s “glib tone” which “makes him seem content to poke fun at his central character’s pain.”  Rooney also found the play “shapeless and baggy,” even though the production is “well-appointed” and “[a]ll the actors are attuned to the quirky humor.”  The HR review-writer asserted that in Hold On to Me, “Lonergan has crafted an acerbic satire of the social-media age, in which we live by inspirational platitudes and politician-like biographical narratives.” 

Turning to the blogosphere, I found that the opinions overall echoed those in the print media.  On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart, characterizing the play as “undeniably hilarious at points,” felt that the “laugh-out-loud comedy . . . has a tendency to drag, with the plot often wandering away with our patience.”  Stewart praised the way Lonergan “astutely captures the American habit of speaking in cliché” and marveled at how Strings “seems to think and speak exclusively in country music lyrics,” but complained that “the laughs start to sputter as the second act circles the runway, looking for a place to land.”  The playwright, Stewart asserted, “leaves the story tantalizingly unresolved, but by the time he does, we’ve lost all interest.”  Praising the sets, costumes, and sound, Stewart reported that Pepe’s direction, “great performances and first-rate design” don’t “completely compensate for a script in need of trimming.” 

On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer marveled, “I can’t recall an audience at one of [Lonergan’s] plays constantly bursting into gales of raucous laughter as they did when I saw Hold On to Me Darling.”  Despite being “self-indulgently long,” Sommer noted, the play “is easy to take thanks to the cast” and Spangler’s “eye-popping revolving sets.”  In the end, the CU reviewer declared that Lonergan was here at “the top of his game with fully rounded characters and a script with serious issues edging their way through all the laughs.”  On the Huffington Post, David Finkle dubbed Hold On to Me “one of the season’s most head-scratching plays” which is “not necessarily thoroughly helped along” by Pepe’s direction.  He characterized the first act as “little short of sensational,” but then reversed course and pronounced that in the second act, “not a lot makes sense”—including the introduction of a new character in the last scene, leading to an “unconvincing fade-out.”  The HP review-writer had praise for the cast and Spangler’s sets 

Talkin’ Broadway’s Matthew Murray, who described Hold On to Me as “a punchy, pointed comedy that lands with appealing ferocity,” quipped of the play at the outset of his notice, “Good luck finding a funnier play about a sadder subject,” the death of Strings’s mother. “Lonergan has so tightly interwoven the tragedy . . . with the absurdity of finding solace . . .,” Murray thought, “that at least half the time you’ll be embarrassed for not shooting out tears instead of cackles.”  With special plaudits for Olyphant, TB’s blogger complimented Pepe, who “hits all the required buttons, but never too hard,” and the cast for the way they “instinctively get what Lonergan is going for and deliver it with gusto.”  Though the “shape and scope of Hold On to Me Darling could not be better,” Murray asserted, “each scene could be trimmed by about five minutes.”  “Were it lighter and more streamlined,” he determined, “the play might not come as close as it does to running out of steam at the very end.”  On Broadway World, Michael Dale found that Lonergan’s play “seems to be searching for a meaning to be on the stage for nearly three hours.”  He summed up, “It’s a simple story that’s drawn out at a lethargic pace” and ended by lamenting, “HOLD ON TO ME DARLING offers little to hold on to.”

Brian Scott Lipton called Hold On to Me an “overlong, shaggy-dog story” on Theater Pizzazz, but found that “Olyphant’s sheer magnetism,” along with “the perfectly-calibrated performances that director Neil Pepe has elicited from his supporting players,” was enough to keep him in his seat.  “What we have here,” concluded Lipton, “is comedy-as-character study.  It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, but Olyphant has the sure footing that allows him to never take a misstep.”  Tulis McCall of the New York Theatre Guide reported that when she returned to her seat after intermission, she “marveled that any of [the audience] returned.”  She reported that she had found the first act “literally painful to watch,” though she was “pleasantly surprised by the second act,” despite the production’s “v-e-r-y long two plus hours.”  Though, with the exception of Olyphant, McCall was complimentary about the acting, she found that “excellent performances were not quite enough to rescue this play.”  (She did admit that she seemed to be in the minority among the spectators the night she attended.)

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