Wyndham’s Theatre, London – until 10 August 2019
Overarching it all is a dome, a sky clouded or moonlit, starry or dim. This matters. Sometimes lighting makes the walls of the revolving rooms – lecture-hall, hospital ward, domestic – translucent so that the great shining cosmos filters into the small brief human lives we are watching. I loved that. I wish more was made of it in Kenneth Lonergan’s odd, diffuse, deliberately low-powered play. Because he – and his star Matthew Broderick, who first played it Off-Broadway and loyally returns – first met at the New York Hayden planetarium where this is set. Such ideas matter to them.
It is about a mid-life crisis. In the lecture-room Broderick’s Mark is a tweedy little man, teacherly, polite, doing an adult education lecture and fielding questions alternately moronic, truculent, and smart-alecky. These are often very funny: there’s a dry regretful comedy in the play at its best. Mark goes home and there’s his wife Anne (Elizabeth McGovern) going on and on as wives do about Christmas arrangements involving her mother and her mother’s friend staying, and a sofa-bed. His listless politeness operates there too. “It’s too complicated,” pleads the man who lectures on the cosmos.
But meanwhile he has met a sparky trainee nurse, Rosalind Eleazar (a West End debut and she’s great!). She has a nine-year-old son who loves the Planetarium, whereas Mark and Anne just have a sullen offstage teenager torturing a guitar. A sort of affair ensues. The soft slow-paced bewilderment and disengagement of Mark makes it hardly torrid: but it sparks something, and urged on by his livelier colleague he staggers modestly forward into applying for a more fulfilling job, at lower pay, on a project to measure the Universe.
Meanwhile Angela the nurse is sweetly tending an old man in hospital (a very splendid Jim Norton) and crossing swords with his fraught daughter (another interesting performance from Sinead Matthews). And back in the lecture room poor Mark is confronted by a monstrous student of the new generation (Sid Sagar) who has written an unsolicited five-page assessment of the lecturer’s faults and merits and feels entitled to deliver it. And to explain that it is the teacher’s fault if he doesn’t listen because “A student’s natural state of rest is a wandering mind”.
Sometimes this three-hour play is frankly a bit dull , sometimes there are very good laughs indeed (Jenny Galloway as a nightmare student is a joy, so is Sagar). There are flashes of wisdom, and those stars sometimes shining through the walls to remind you how small we really are. There is, late on, one real and visceral shock.
But its strength is that despite its low-temperature and slow pace, it’s hard not to love Broderick’s Mark. There is a sweet kindly passionless puzzlement about him, a wistful unfulfilment. Broderick carries it with controlled, modest perfection. When I left I thought I was disappointed in the play. But this morning I can’t help thinking about Mark, and his wife, and the sadness of all our middle years as they shade towards nightfall..
box office 0333 023 1550 to 10 August