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November 26, 2009

TT: Lost in the stars

I review two shows in Friday's Wall Street Journal, Kenneth Lonergan's The Starry Messenger and the Broadway transfer of Fela! The first is extraordinary, the second very good. Because of the Thanksgiving holiday, the Journal decided to post my Friday column on the paper's Web site in advance of its appearance in print, so here's an excerpt.

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Eight years ago, Kenneth Lonergan was an artist of seemingly infinite promise, a writer with three plays and a movie under his belt, all of them memorable. Then Hollywood knocked him off the tracks, and of late his career has been looking more like a cautionary tale. "Margaret," Mr. Lonergan's second film, was shot in 2006 but is still stuck in post-production--he was reportedly unable to complete a final cut. Meanwhile, the premiere of his fourth play, "The Starry Messenger," was announced twice and cancelled twice in the past four seasons, first by San Diego's Old Globe Theatre and then by the Off-Broadway New Group.

STARRY.jpgNow "The Starry Messenger" has opened Off Broadway, preceded by a string of alarming reports suggesting that Mr. Lonergan and his cast had a rocky time in rehearsal. No doubt they did, but you wouldn't know it from seeing the finished product. Like "You Can Count on Me," the 2000 film that first brought its author-director to the attention of a national audience, "The Starry Messenger" is an engrossing study of the toll that prolonged disappointment exacts on the human spirit, performed with consummate skill by an ensemble cast led by Matthew Broderick and staged with unassuming finesse by Mr. Lonergan himself.

Mr. Broderick plays Mark, a 46-year-old astronomy teacher who dreamed as a young man of "becoming a real astronomer--a practicing astronomer," then came to the reluctant conclusion that he wasn't good enough to make the cut. Trapped in the smothering dailiness of family life and an unsatisfying job, he stumbles headlong into an affair with Angela (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a 28-year-old Puerto Rican nurse with a young child whose father refuses to marry her. Anne (J. Smith-Cameron), Mark's wife, knows nothing of the affair but is all too aware of the reasons for his unhappiness: "You decided that everybody you were working with was more talented than you...You told me that. And I never forgot it. It was the most terrible thing I ever heard anybody say about themselves."...

Is it really possible to write an interesting play about yet another frustrated family man of a certain age who seeks to plug the hole in his soul by having an affair with a younger woman? That's like asking whether it's possible to write yet another interesting symphony in the key of E minor. It says much about the nature of Mr. Lonergan's gifts that for all the seeming obviousness of the plot of "The Starry Messenger," you'll never be able to guess what happens next. He is a theatrical alchemist who transforms the commonplace by portraying it with quiet honesty and charging it with moral complexity....

The designers of the Broadway transfer of "Fela!" have turned the staid interior of the Eugene O'Neill Theatre into a riotous facsimile of a corrugated-iron Nigerian dance hall that appears to have been jointly decorated by Romare Bearden and Paul Klee. The music played inside, a savory stew of big-band jazz, James Brown-style funk and African percussion known to its devotees as "Afrobeat," is an ideal backdrop for the flat-footed, hip-swiveling dancing of the hottest chorus in town. All that's missing from this bio-musical about the life of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the Nigerian pop star and political activist, is a plot, and an act and a half goes by before its absence becomes obtrusive....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted November 26, 2009 12:00 AM

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