By Tulis McCall
When returning to my seat after the intermission of Hold On To Me Darling, by Kenneth Lonergan, now at Atlantic Theater Company, I was in one of those bewildered states. Because I review for the theatre, I have to stay for the entire performance, even if I would rather not. The other audience members are not obligated in any way. On this night, I marveled that any of them returned. It was, however, a preview and the audience was packed with loyal friends who were there to support their chums. And that is worth something indeed.
Strings McCrane (Timothy Olyphant) is a tall, chiseled hunk of a country music singer who is mourning the loss of his Mama. McCrane is a bloviator of the highest order. You need only to breathe on him to get him to spout off on whatever it is that ails him, interests him or occupies his thought process. Women seem to be attracted to him, but certainly not for anything that comes out of his mouth. He is a victim of his own making, so famous that he envies the poor folks he looks at through the tinted windows of his limousine. He would give it all up, he says, if he could have a normal life and walk down the street like any nobody on the planet.
At his side is his devoted and slightly squirrelly assistant Jimmy (a perfect Keith Nobbs) who has been attached to Strings for around a decade and could probably not breathe if separated from same by too great a distance. After Strings has smashed up a guitar (that Olyphant is entirely unable to play) it is Jimmy who orders a masseuse. Nancy (Jenn Lyon) arrives and predictably ends up being the horizontal one after a too-long exchange of heartfelt southern blather.
Soon Strings is thinking about chucking it all and moving back home to be with his brother Duke (the excellent C.J.Wilson) who can spout a “southernism” and will Sweet Jesus you in more configurations than you can count. At their mother’s funeral Strings reconnects with his cousin Essie (Adelaide Clemens) who is just distant enough to take his mind off of Nancy. In addition to Essie, Strings is interested in fulfilling that dream of normalcy by buying the local feed store and chucking the life of a star. This brings on the predictable consequences of being run upside and down the other by Nancy as well as being sued by the people depending on his talents. And, oh yeah, there is that Pappy of his, Mitch (Jonathan Hogan), who has been missing for 30 years is due for a cameo appearance.
All this takes place over a v-e-r-y long two plus hours. The first act was literally painful to watch. After jumping the gun on his entrance, Mr. Olyphant went through the motions in his portrayal of Strings with such effort that he appeared to be uncertain of his lines, his blocking or his intention.
I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the second act. One scene in particular revealed Kenneth Lonergan’s writing to be much smarter than the first act indicated. Essie and Nancy have it out in the hotel lobby in a cat fight that is filled with switchbacks and surprises. Lyon and Clemens are superb as they thrust and parry. In this scene we finally see these two women stripped down to their innards and, although we cannot understand what they see in Strings, we know that each of them is desparate to hang on to that tall drink of water. It is a critical scene for the story to work in the way that Lonergan wants.
It was only upon reflection that I realized that this was the only scene in which Olyphant did not appear. Hence, there was a great weight lifted and the dialogue had a chance to cha-cha. In reading the script, this realization was confirmed. There is a poetry to Strings of which he is oblivious. When he tries, he misfires, but he misfires with gusto. The night I was there Mr. Olyphant and the text were all oil and water.
Who knows what happens on any given night in the theatre? What we see one night will never be repeated. Perhaps Mr. Olyphant was just having an off night. Over the course of the evening in question he never achieved an honest moment: from the lack of familiarity with his guitar, to the moment when he broke character and laughed at his scene partner’s line, to the many, many miss steps in picking up his cues. It was a performance that flatlined from start to finish and nearly dragged everyone else down with it.
The other actors, however, held up their end of the bargain. As Duke C. J. Wilson who’d us a cranky exterior that was sharp enough to hone a knife on and believable enough to make you feel the life that was closing in on him. Jenn Lyon’s about face as Nancy got closer to the prize of marriage was a skillful study in the art of focus. Keith Nobbs’s Jimmy was a perfect hamster on a running wheel – nowhere to go and getting there in a hurry.
These excellent performances were not quite enough to rescue this play. The “Darling” onto which they were all holding was beached early on, and the tide of their good intentions was not strong enough to raise it to float free.
PS – In spite of my reaction, most of the audience stood and cheered. They saw what I did not.
Ah. Theatre and its magic.
HOLD ON TO ME DARLING – Written by Kenneth Lonergan; Directed by Neil Pepe
WITH Adelaide Clemens as Essie, Jonathan Hogan as Mitch, Jenn Lyon as Nancy, Keith Nobbs as Jimmy, Timothy Olyphant as Strings McCrane and C.J. Wilson as Duke
Set by Walter Spaangler, Lights by Brian MacDevitt, Costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlab
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company, Neil Pepe Artistic Director, Jeffory Lawson Managing Director.