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Man From Nebraska

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 15, 2017

Annette O'Toole and Reed Birney
Photo by Joan Marcus

A man desperately searching for answers but encountering only silence in response to his pleas is the central issue of Tracy Letts's play Man From Nebraska, which just opened at Second Stage, in more ways than one. One on hand, there's Ken Carpenter, a previously devout Baptist who discovers to his horror one night that he no longer believes in God. And on the other, there's Letts himself, a gifted playwright who struggles mightily at making sense of the conundrums he raises, and struggles harder still at making them real.

That there's so little to say about this plot is perhaps the most stunning part of Man From Nebraska—it just doesn't extend far beyond the basic prĂ©cis. After losing his faith and failing to find it again with the help of his wife Nancy or daughter Ashley, he seizes on the advice of his pastor and departs from his home in Lincoln to the one place he's longed to go for decades, but hasn't been since his service in the Air Force: London.

Once there, he attempts to unearth some new sense of meaning, but comes across only new questions about the day-to-day suffering we must all endure. He dallies with a woman he meets on a plane; makes uneasy friends with Tamyra, the bartender at the hotel at which he's saying; and then studies sculpture with Tamyra's roommate, Harry, after insinuating himself into their lives. As the weeks and months pass, Ken's family—and for that matter, all of us—wonder what he's thinking and whether he will ever return to where he needs to be.

The matter shouldn't be as pressing as it is, since getting there (so to speak) should be at least half the fun and/or enlightenment, but there's little joy and less coherence in Ken's chronicle. When Ken begins disbelieving, it's in large part because of his concern that God hasn't answered his prayers about his dementia-riddled 80-something mother Cammie, who's not so slowly wasting away in a nursing home, but Letts doesn't make it clear how he gets from there to nearly cheating on his wife; their relationship is, ostensibly, strong. Ken's other indulgences are similarly head-scratching, less the believable province of a 57-year-old man than, perhaps a 17-year-old boy exploring boundaries. But if Ken doesn't know who he is and what he believes, his loss—and recovery attempts—are meaningless. If his soul is so fungible, why should we care where he looks or what he finds?

In theory, the logic is that Ken, shackled by years of repressive religion, is finally exploring the range of possibilities of life rather than hiding behind someone else's explanation of how it should be lived. But his treatment of his family is pure callousness, which makes a man who's already impenetrable and unsympathetic also someone barely worth liking, let alone loving. Yes, there's also the lazy formulation that this comes about because of the church—it's more important to have a member than a truly moral man—but that would be swallowable if Ken were. He's not, and ugliness, tempered by blandness (which only expands and deepens across the two-hour-plus running time), is the chief result.

Nana Mensah, Max Gordon Moore, and Reed Birney
Photo by Joan Marcus

It certainly doesn't help that Letts's investigation, at best, skims the surface of what should be a multifaceted conundrum, expecting us to accept that Ken's beliefs are equally valid as ironclad and nonexistent, but not letting us dig into either state. The prevailing goal of the first half of the show is apparently to get Ken to London by any means necessary; once he's there, his quest is all but forgotten. Whether this is supposed to be a tract or an argument, there's not enough substance to give it emotional, intellectual, or spiritual weight.

Originally produced at Steppenwolf in 2003, Man From Nebraska is sort of a transitional piece, charting Letts's development from his bracingly nasty earlier works (Killer Joe in 1993, Bug in 1996) to the more mature and thoughtful political excavations he's crafted since (most notably his epic August: Osage County from 2007, Superior Donuts from 2009). It's also, by far, the weakest of his plays I've seen, the most bound by convention and the least interested in compelling narrative. Not even this remarkably fluid production, which has been directed by David Cromer with his usual eye for style, can bring it to life. If anything, Cromer's compartmentalization of the action, treating each scene as a momentary glimmer of thought that appears on Takeshi Kata's stark set and then dissolves beneath Keith Parham's smooth lighting, hurts more than it helps by revealing the potential for excitement that Letts's leaden conception and execution simply do not allow.

The acting suffers as well, starting with Reed Birney, giving an uncharacteristically perfunctory performance as Ken. Coming off his richly layered (and Tony winning) portrayal of a crumbling father in The Humans, he's unable here to articulate any of this man's most complex feelings or justify him from the apparent contradictions that define him. Birney depicts generic turmoil, but none of the existential confliction or confusion we need to see to really get Ken—the most he ever seems to be fighting is ennui, which, in this context anyway, is not especially absorbing.

Annette O'Toole is rather more precise as Nancy, though she's unable to untangle the bewildering final scene that's more about wrapping things up neatly than in getting to the root of Nancy and Ken's problems. Nana Mensah and Max Gordon Moore are sharp but one-note as Tamyra and Harry; they can't make clear the value of what these two people are supposed to offer a man adrift, but they do try. Considerably more convincing are Heidi Armbruster as Ken's "other woman," and Kathleen Peirce, who projects a wealth of emotions as Cammie despite having barely any cogent dialogue.

But the little Cammie says, and the great amount she stands for, gives Man From Nebraska a much-needed dose of heart, and a sobering fulcrum about which the rest of the play can and does turn. She's a reminder that nothing we do exists in a vacuum, no matter how much we may want it to, and that sometimes our eyes are better focused on Earth than on the heavens. That's all the point Letts needs but, for once in his heretofore varied and astute career, more than he knows what to do with.

Man From Nebraska
Through March 12
Second Stage / Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Second Stage Theatre