This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

8Mar/17

MAN FROM NEBRASKA

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Nancy (Annette O’Toole) and Ken’s (Reed Birney) marriage is turned inside out when Ken starts questioning his faith (photo by Joan Marcus)

2econd Stage Theatre
Tony Kiser Theatre
305 West 43rd St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 26, $82
www.2st.com

David Cromer’s revival of Tracy Letts’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Man from Nebraska, is a gentle, beautifully poetic, sensitively drawn drama about one midwesterner’s crisis of faith and the effects it has on his family. Reed Birney, one of New York City’s finest, and busiest, actors, stars as Ken Carpenter, a fifty-seven-year-old insurance agent in Lincoln, Nebraska, who wakes up one morning in tears. “I don’t think . . . there’s a God. I don’t believe in Him anymore,” he tells his wife, Nancy (Annette O’Toole). “Maybe we’re just . . . science. Like they say. Accidental science.” As Nancy tries to comfort him, he adds, “Nobody listens when I pray. We’re not rewarded for what we do right — punished for what we do wrong.” Nancy invites the local pastor, Reverend Todd (William Ragsdale), to discuss the matter with Ken, ultimately suggesting that he take a solo vacation to clear his doubts. “Faith takes work. Sometimes you need a break,” Reverend Todd says. So Ken flees to London, where he was stationed when he was in the Air Force, leaving behind a confused Nancy, their upset daughter Ashley (Annika Boras), and his ailing mother, Cammie (Kathleen Peirce), who is in a nursing home. Generally calm and dependable, Ken gets involved in some very new experiences overseas as he sets out on a kind of Baptist rumspringa, meeting traveling businesswoman Pat Monday (Heidi Armbruster), poetry-reading bartender Tamyra (Nana Mensah), and cynical sculptor Harry (Max Gordon Moore), wondering if his life will ever be the same. Meanwhile, Reverend Todd’s father, Bud (Tom Bloom), decides to try to help Nancy through this difficult time.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Tamyra (Nana Mensah) and Harry (Max Gordon Moore) show Ken (Reed Birney) a different side of life in Tracy Letts revival at 2econd Stage (photo by Joan Marcus)

Originally staged in 2003 at Steppenwolf, Man from Nebraska unfolds like a gentle symphony in its New York debut at 2econd Stage; in fact, Letts, who won the Pulitzer and Tony for August: Osage County as well as a Best Actor Tony for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, calls the acts “movements” in the script. Cromer’s (Our Town, The House of Blue Leaves) staging is wonderfully precise and relatively simple, taking full advantage of 2econd Stage’s wide theater. Takeshi Kata’s set features only the most basic elements for each scene; lining the back and sides of the stage are a few beds, a church pew, a desk, small tables, two beds, a bar, and a sculptor’s area. Many scenes last only a few minutes, as the necessary element is brought forward in the dark; Keith Parham’s lighting then shines a spot on the actor(s) until the scene ends and the stage goes dark again until the next one. After intermission, the scenes are more like jazz solos, becoming longer and more complicated. Whether the scene depicts Ken and Nancy eating steak and mashed potatoes at a local restaurant, not saying much at all, or Ken pouring his heart out to Pat and Tamyra, everything is given equal weight and emotional impact. O’Toole (Hamlet in Bed, Cat People) plays Nancy with a slow simmer that threatens to boil as Ashley says some harsh things to her, but the show belongs to Tony, Obie, and Drama Desk winner Birney (The Humans, Circle Mirror Transformation), so quietly understated as Ken, whose last name, Carpenter, isn’t coincidentally the occupation of Jesus and Joseph. Troubled by his loss of faith, he is not quite everyman; he is very specifically the kind of heartlander who felt shunned by the Democrats and ended up voting for Donald Trump. He is undereducated, lacks culture (“I’ve never known anyone who read poetry,” he tells Tamyra after mispronouncing Pablo Neruda’s last name), and still uses such words as “colored” without realizing how offensive it is, especially to Tamyra, who is black. Letts and Cromer walk a very fine line between making Ken a sympathetic figure and a clueless redneck; in the hands of a different actor and director, this revival might not be nearly as successful, and timely, as it is.

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