”Midlife Crisis (of Faith)”
Tracy Letts’s Man from Nebraska—a 2004 Pulitzer Prize finalist belatedly getting its New York premiere nearly 14 years after its Steppenwolf premiere in Chicago—focuses on a 59-year-old insurance salesman named Ken Carpenter (Reed Birney). Ken lives a dull, routine-oriented, ultra-polite, Norman Rockwell life as a husband, father, and grandfather in the American heartland, Lincoln, Nebraska, to be exact. He and his faithful wife, Nancy (Annette O’Toole), have two grown daughters, one (unseen) at Brown, the other, Ashley (Annika Boras), living locally with her spouse.One night, Ken rushes from his bed to the bathroom and leans over the sink with a towel stuffed into his mouth to prevent Nancy from hearing his convulsive sobs. But she does; under the pressure of her worried questions (she wonders if he’s having a stroke or heart attack), Ken, a churchgoing, pious Baptist, who was “saved” at 12, reveals that he's suffering because he longer believes in God. This so overwhelms him that it threatens to break up his family life.
By now, we’ve already gotten a sense that something’s been tearing away at Ken’s innards. The first few scenes, in a car, church, cafeteria, nursing home, and living room, despite their dearth of dialogue, suggest the complacent lives of a long-married husband and wife who, while mutually respectful, are resigned to living lives of quiet desperation. Their big issue, as in so many families, is an ailing parent, Ken’s mother, Cammie (Kathleen Peirce, very convincing), whom they visit in a nursing home where they patiently deal with her dementia and breathing problems.
By the time Ken cracks up, David Cromer’s beautifully calibrated direction has drawn us into the Carpenters' lives as he moves the action from one suggestively defined locale to the other with cinematic smoothness. The journey, however, hits some playwriting potholes as Act One (of two) proceeds, but the fine staging and performances manage for a time to keep us on the road. Eventually, though, the potholes deepen and, by Act Two, we begin worrying that the drama’s tires are rapidly losing the air of credibility.
The first hint comes fairly early, when the family pastor, Rev. Todd (William Ragsdale, cheerfully fatuous), rather than engage with Ken in serious discussion, advises that he might restore his faith if he goes off alone somewhere. Ken, clueless, takes this as a cue fly to London, where he served in the Air Force many years before.
More air leaks out when Pat Monday (Heidi Armbruster, just right), the attractive businesswoman next to him on the plane, comes on to him; she even searches him out later in London. By then, the teetotalling Ken has started drinking booze under the ministrations of his hotel’s friendly, black, female bartender, Tamyra (Nana Mensah, very good), a reader of Pablo Neruda, who introduces him to her white, drug-dealing, artist flatmate, the brash, loud sculptor Harry Brown (Max Gordon Moore, annoyingly brash and loud).
Even more implausibly, Harry, who’s been chiseling a monumental stone sculpture of Tamyra in an attitude of ecstatic religious supplication, begins teaching Ken, who actually shows talent, to sculpt! Finally, though, Ken, who’s practically abandoned Nancy, is forced by his mother’s passing to return home.
There he must confront his alienated and resentful wife, who, while he was gone, had to fend off the unwanted advances of her pastor’s obnoxious, randy, 75-year-old dad, Bud (Tom Bloom, obnoxiously randy). As the stars fill the night sky, Ken and Nancy face the struggle of reconciliation.
The idea of a repressed bourgeois man leaving home to light his inner fire, while not new, is certainly ripe for dramatization. However, once Letts (so successful with August: Osage County) sets up his situation, he doesn’t follow through with characters or situations sufficiently capable of avoiding the mantle of contrivance. Instead, everything reeks of clichés and overstatement, and the play gets diverted from its original path. Also, those of little faith may find it difficult to sympathize with a man who practically destroys his family while he goes off to seek his inner hippie in a hedonistic lifestyle because he no longer believes in God.
Thankfully, the exaggerated relationships and characters are anchored by the brilliance of Tony winner (The Humans) Reed Birney and Annette O’Toole, each of whom gets better every time out. Birney, especially, gets many opportunities to display his emotional palette, from the suppressed pain behind Ken’s reticence to the anguish of his loss of faith to a romp with a bondage-loving woman to a wild, drug-induced, strobe-lit dance, to grief at his mother’s death, and, finally, to his urgent need to patch things up with Nancy.
Daniel Kluger’s versatile background music and diverse sound effects contribute mightily, as does Keith Parham’s lighting, isolating selective units of furniture placed—beneath a looming cosmos of clouds—by designer Takeshi Kata around the stage’s dark expanse. It would be even better if the nearly invisible stagehands in Act One didn’t become so intrusively present in Act Two.
As for the question of whether Ken’s trip to London helps him once again believe in God, I suspect Letts’s halfhearted answer will not be to everyone’s satisfaction. Which isn’t to say that Ken hasn’t found something of value, even if it's something else.
Second Stage Theatre
305 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through March 26