Tuesday, March 15, 2016

167. Review: HOLD ON TO ME DARLING (seen March 12, 2016)

“Hold On to This One, Darlings”

The premise of Kenneth Lonergan’s (THIS IS OUR YOUTH) hilarious, and occasionally moving, new play, HOLD ON TO ME DARLING, is simple, so let’s dispense with it right away. “Strings” Clarence McCrane (Timothy Olyphant) is a 39-year-old, vaguely Elvis-like, country western idol and movie superstar (“the 3rd biggest crossover star in the history of country music”) involved in a big budget movie set in outer space. His mama has just died and he’s so “tore up inside” he wants to move back home, give up his fame and riches, and become a good ole boy again selling feed in his hometown feed store. This premise, aiming to satirize the excesses of our celebrity culture, is embedded in one of the most raucously funny, perfectly acted, and delightfully staged works currently available on any Off-Broadway stage. It might be even better if Mr. Lonergan could trim it down a bit from its two-hour, 45-minute running time, but, under Neil Pepe’s priceless direction, it’s so rich in dialogue and character I can understand if others think it’s just as long as it has to be. 
Timothy Olyphant, Jenn Lyon. Photo: Doug Hamilton.
Strings believes his success has cost him his humanity and that all that people see in him is the glitzy shell of who he really is. Women, he claims, want only to brag to their friends about having spent the night with him, even texting about it while having sex. As he tells his sycophantic personal assistant, Jimmy (the deliciously obsequious Keith Nobbs), “How can they grab hold of a man who isn’t there? How can you touch somethin’ you can’t feel?,” words in which Jimmy immediately hears “a new song comin’ down the pike.” But Strings declares he’s finished with new songs; his mama’s passing has inspired him to abandon his career and to make it up to her for not having married, settled down, and raised a family like a normal person. He even puts in motion an attempt to find his dad, who ran off when Strings was eight.
Timothy Olyphant, C.J. Wilson. Photo: Doug Hamilton.
Strings hates the publicity and the prying into his private life; it's part of a national celebrity-worshiping sickness for which he holds himself partly responsible. His moralizing, however, doesn’t stop him from his inveterate womanizing as played out here in his relationships with two blond lovelies: Nancy (Jenn Lyon), the self-deprecating (“I was raised with dogs and chickens”) yet smoothly manipulative masseuse he hooks up with after she gives him the Ambassador Grand Classic massage in his Kansas City hotel room; and Essie, his sweetheart of a distant cousin who tries to resist him after they meet at mama’s funeral in the fictional mountain town of Beaumont, Tennessee. It’s here that Strings convinces his older half-brother, Duke (C.J. Wilson) to go into the feed store business with him, a decision that quickly incites a string of lawsuits that threaten to wipe out Strings’s many millions.  
Timothy Olyphant, C.J. Wilson. Photo: Doug Hamilton.
Using a revolving stage, designer Walt Spangler brilliantly brings one realistic set after another into view, from the hotel room, to C.J.’s paneled den (which he calls “an ashtray with furniture in it”) to the funeral parlor where mama lies in rest, to Essie’s chintzy living room, to the quaint feed store. Brian MacDevitt’s versatile lighting provides just the right ambience for each. While the characters we meet are memorably vivid and colorful, so are those we don’t meet, like Verner, the half-Swiss film director whose movie awaits Strings’s return; String’s late mother herself; and Ernie, the feed store owner.
Timothy Olyphant, Jenn Lyon. Photo: Doug Hamilton.
Lonergan’s dialogue has never been more richly humorous; it’s rooted deeply in whoever’s speaking it but constantly makes unexpected shifts that hit your laughter buttons and cause you to explode. Strings lives his life on impulse, making almost everything popping out of his mouth a surprise. He and Duke demonstrate their Southern fried creds with frequent exclamations of the “Jesus Christ in a downtown Memphis hair salon” variety, and Duke recites a litany of feed store products that might almost sound poetic if it didn’t make you laugh so hard. When Strings offers a compliment to Duke about his unseen wife, saying, “Now don’t fool yourself about that Ellie, old buddy. She is worth her weight in gold,” Duke retorts dryly, “Be quite a windfall if that was literally true.” And the bit about the “topless burka” Strings’s actress girlfriend wore in Afghanistan when feeding the hungry? Plenty more where it came from.
Adelaide Clemens, Timothy Olyphant. Photo: Doug Hamilton.
Thoroughly comedic as all this is, the play also has room for moments of feeling (most of them almost immediately blown up by a sidesplitting firecracker). And there’s a truly sentimental, anticlimactic final scene you may not be prepared for but in which veteran Jonathan Hogan, as the long-lost dad, gives such a subdued, heartfelt performance you wouldn’t have it any other way.
C.J. Wilson, Timothy Olyphant. Photo: Doug Hamilton.
Mr. Olyphant (TV’s “Deadwood,” “Justified”), back on Off Broadway after 20 years, couldn’t be better as the twangy, downhome, self-involved Strings (even getting to traipse around in his skivvies, showing off his ripped, slender frame). He has an arsenal of comic skills rarely seen in his serious TV characters. Thank heavens director Neil Pepe hired this charismatic star to play a charismatic star! Both Jenn Lyon and Australian actress Adelaide Clemens make what could be two-dimensional Southern cartoons into three-dimensional women, while C.J. Wilson’s scene-stealing Duke is a comic masterpiece of grumpy Dixie manhood.
C.J. Wilson, Keith Nobbs, Timothy Olyphant, Jenn Lyon. Photo: Doug Hamilton.
HOLD ON TO ME DARLING has a potentially serious theme, but I wouldn’t bother my head about it. I advise you to enter the Atlantic Theatre with only one thing in mind: you’re about to watch nearly three hours of some really funny people saying really funny things in a really funny way. Hold on to this, darlin’, and you’ll have a damn good time.
Jonathan Hogan, Timothy Olyphant. Photo: Doug Hamilton.


Atlantic Theater Company
336 West Twentieth Street, NYC
Through April 3