The troubles which reportedly beset writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s production of “The Starry Messenger,” his first new play in almost a decade, turn out to have been mainly illusory. The flawlessly-cast comedy, now onstage at the Acorn Theater, is a beautifully realized and carefully detailed play, with the compassionate intelligence which characterizes Lonergan’s best work.
Does the play sprawl a bit? At a length of nearly three casual hours, it does, but so does life — particularly the ordinary lives being lived by the play’s eight finely-drawn characters.
“The Starry Messenger” is the longest, most complicated, most quietly ambitious and possibly the best play we have had to date from the unassuming Lonergan.
Matthew Broderick, the author’s closest friend since childhood was, like Lonergan, raised in New York City, a detail which informs the play. On its highest level, “The Starry Messenger,” set between September and December 1995, is a kind of elegiac tribute to the halcyon days of the Hayden Planetarium, which played such a magical role in the lives of city youngsters. At times, the stage and ceiling at the Acorn are beautifully flooded with images of the night sky as it once appeared before the spellbound eyes of youthful Hayden visitors.
Broderick’s character, Mark Williams, is a teacher of evening classes in the basement of the Hayden Planetarium. A quiet, gentle husband and father, aged 42, he had once hoped to become an astronomer, but compromised and settled for less. He is an unassuming man who at one point describes himself as “a serial apologizer.” Broderick, onstage for almost the entire play, has never been better. In presenting this modest, put-upon man in his fullest form, the actor has set aside most of the details of the boyish charm which made him a star. His performance is truly wondrous, as are those of the excellent actors who surround him.
J.Smith Cameron is terrific as Williams’s edgy wife, Anne, increasingly showing strain in her efforts to cope with the nuts and bolts of living with her passive husband and their unseen teenager son, Adam. Catalina Sandino Moreno shines as Angela Vasquez, the nurse-in-training with whom Williams enters into what starts as a casual affair.
Stephanie Cannon and Kieran Culkin are standouts as two astronomy students, each of them posing problems for their teacher, and so is Grant Shaud, as one of Williams’s teaching colleagues. Merwin Goldsmith and Missy Yager are fine as a father and daughter Angela encounters in the course of her work at the hospital.
Toward the end of “The Starry Messenger,” Williams addresses his students at their final class session. The speech is a fond farewell to the Hayden Planetarium, razed shortly after the time in which the play takes place.
Lonergan’s tribute to the vanished old planetarium is so eloquent that it deserves to be included in future collections of writings about New York City.