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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Starry Messenger
Wyndham's Theatre Summer 2019

Kenneth Lonergan's quiet little play as so low-key and gossamer as to barely be there. It tells the story of a man so self-effacing and personality-less as to barely be there.

And, despite some excellent acting and a few decent laughs, the play's effect on you is likely to be just as fleeting and minimal.

Matthew Broderick plays a middle-aged failed scientist reduced to lecturing on elementary astronomy to drop-in students at New York's planetarium.

He has a passive-aggressive wife (Elizabeth McGovern, getting co-star billing for what is little more than a walk-on role) he hardly speaks to, an offstage teenage son he connects to even less, but somehow a pretty nice suburban home.

He's not a particularly good teacher, unable to do much with students ranging from the comically ignorant ('Is Mars a moon?') to the comically presumptuous ('I've graded you as a teacher in these categories.').

And then, improbably, he begins an affair with a Puerto Rican single mother training to be a nurse.

Mildly good things happen to him, very bad things happen to her, and then life goes on, with the man about as untouched and unchanged by his adventures as you are likely to be by the play.

Oh, and there's a subplot of sorts about an old man in hospital, being tended by the student nurse, and his strained relations with his daughter – and I must confess that I have no idea what those scenes are doing in this play, except perhaps to provide perspective for the triviality of the central character's story.

Matthew Broderick is an actor of immense personal charm, but he and director Sam Yates have chosen to completely suppress his personality in a performance of wooden and affect-less emptiness. The man happy, the man sad, the man lecturing, the man in love are all equally robotic and distanced from himself and everything around him.

It is, I suppose, a remarkable acting achievement, but it would seem more appropriate to a play by Pinter or Beckett than to what seems to want to be a quirky rom-com, a kind of gentle (and gentile) Woody Allen-ish slice of life in New York City.

Far more interesting and attractive is the performance of newcomer Rosalind Eleazar as the woman who goes into the love affair with a New Yorker's – even a working-class New Yorker's – casualness and limited expectations but a greater capacity for fully valuing and enjoying it than Broderick's character ever has.

And when the worst thing in the world happens to her we not only believe and feel her experience fully, but judge her lover to his detriment by the gap between her capacity for emotion and his.

About Elizabeth McGovern there is little to say. She is effective in one strong scene near the end that shows there is more to her character than the just-passing-through stereotype she was up to then.

The play is set in 1997 when New York's landmark Hayden Planetarium was demolished and replaced, and the single longest and most passionate speech in the play comes at the very end, as Matthew Broderick's character muses on what an adventure it was for a child to discover science in those beautiful surroundings.

Of course it has very little to do with the rest of the play. But it's nice.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Starry Messenger - Wyndham's Theatre 2019
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