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Theatre in Review: Man from Nebraska (Second Stage)

Reed Birney, Heidi Armbruster. Photo: Joan Marcus

When did Reed Birney become the New York theatre's indispensable character man? He's been doing fine work for four decades -- beginning with Albert Innaurato's blockbuster comedy, Gemini -- but for much of that time he has flown under the radar, going about his work in thoroughly conscientious fashion, creating a gallery of everymen with such economy of means that it has been all too easy for him to be overlooked. Tours de force were for other, showier, types; Birney delivered his characters quietly, honestly, and without excessive displays of effort. About ten years ago, however, the roles became more challenging. Probing the pregnant silences in Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation, going for broke in a stunning sex scene in Adam Bock's A Small Fire, taking the paint off the theatre walls as a fading playwright, consumed by jealousy and booze, in Halley Feiffer's I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard, Birney was suddenly the actor you talked about when having drinks after the play. And yet, without visible effort, he could still slip seamlessly into the ensemble of The Humans, Stephen Karam's portrait of a middle-class family at bay in the world of 2016 America.

Birney's unparalleled skill at evoking the dislocations of middle age have never been put to better use than in Man from Nebraska, the story of an upstanding husband and father whose life slips from its neat little frame, leaving him in a profound state of spiritual disarray. In a rather daring opening gambit, the playwright, Tracy Letts, shows Ken Carpenter, Birney's character, and his wife, Nancy (Annette O'Toole), as they go about their regular Sunday ritual, driving to church in near silence, chuckling at the minister's lame jokes, dining on steak at a cafeteria, and visiting Ken's mother, who is slowly expiring from emphysema and is given to experiencing visits from her long-dead husband. This routine clearly has been carried out dozens -- maybe hundreds -- of times, and Ken and Nancy enact it with the stoicism that often seems to be a feature of life in the Midwest. (If you've seen Alexander Payne's Nebraska, you'll know exactly what I mean.)

For all we know, the entire play will consist of these little vignettes, each of them fading to black before anything major happens. Then, one night, after he and Nancy have gone to bed, Ken locks himself in the bathroom and sobs uncontrollably into a towel. An alarmed Nancy tries to comfort him, but it's no use; her previously capable, rock-like husband has, in an instant, become utterly inconsolable. The reason? Ken, a Baptist since the age of twelve, no longer believes in God. And without that belief, his life suddenly makes no sense.

Nancy struggles to offer Ken wifely support. Their daughter, Ashley, who works in Ken's insurance business, wants him to snap out of it. Reverend Todd, the family's pastor, tells Ken -- who can't remember the last time he had a vacation -- that maybe he needs to go off someplace and take it easy for a few days. Todd has in mind a fishing trip and a pile of Louis L'Amour novels. Instead, Ken flees to London, where he was stationed in the army many years earlier -- and he leaves no clue as to when he plans to return.

Most of Man from Nebraska follows Ken as he befriends Tamyra, a tart-tongued hotel bartender, and Harry, her roommate, a sculptor given to long, furious rants about the state of the world. The two lead a bohemian existence, struggling to meet the rent even as they hit the clubs and run around with men. From their point of view, Ken's spiritual breakdown is a luxury problem, the sort of thing enjoyed only by those with the money to indulge it. Ken, marking time and clueless about his future, becomes a sort of honorary sidekick, hitting the London club scene and taking up sculpture himself. In one particularly head-swiveling sequence, Ken accepts the tab of Ecstasy that Tamyra forces on him and, a little while later, is leaping around the dance floor to techno music. Meanwhile, Nancy's knack for forbearance is severely tried, especially with daughter Ashley urging her to take punitive action against Ken. Todd offers to counsel her, to little effect; Todd's lecherous father paws at her, and, when rebuffed, coldly informs her that he is probably her last prospect.

As Ken lurches through a series of adventures that are, alternately, thrilling and mortifying, and as Nancy struggles to maintain the status quo back home, we can't help but wonder what, if anything, the future holds for them. Once again, Letts impresses with his depth of vision and refusal to repeat himself. Man from Nebraska strikes me as the most penetrating play about religion to be seen this season. Ken's rule-bound faith life, based on inarguable dogma and an unflinching sense of what is right in all situations, puts him in a spiritual straitjacket; only when he opens himself to the world -- in all its messiness and chaos -- does he begin to find his soul. In one especially telling moment, Harry reveals his current work in progress, an enormous sculpture of a naked woman reaching up to the sky. It is an acute study of spiritual and carnal desire, and it's enough to send Ken running from the room in tears.

The director David Cromer's finely detailed way with actors makes him the right man for the job. Birney's Ken is a penetrating study of an average guy who suddenly awakens to a world of feelings and ideas he never knew existed. Consider the quiet look of bewilderment in his eyes as he says, out loud, that it doesn't matter if the plane he is traveling on crashes. Or how, loosened up, for the first time, by a cocktail or three, he turns into a magpie, pouring out his heart to Tamyra. Or his deep absorption while working on a little clay bust -- and the focused fury with which he later destroys it. Annette O'Toole is equally fine as Nancy, pretending, almost pathetically, to her daughter that everything is all right, furiously fighting off Todd's father, and, at long last, giving in to despair. Nana Mensah provides plenty of deadpan amusement as Tamyra, who is always ready to remind Ken of his privilege. ("I'm here because I've lost my faith," Ken says. "Yanks toss you out for that now?" she asks.) She makes the most of a speech in which she savages Ken for his self-indulgence, and is equally fine when retracting her criticism, quietly admitting to a real affection for him.

There are also telling contributions from Heidi Armbruster as a high-strung Coca-Cola executive who figures in Ken's abortive attempt at adultery; Tom Bloom as Nancy's would-be suitor; Annika Boras as the angry, superficial Ashley; Max Gordon Moore as Harry, especially in a remarkable piece of invective describing his encounter with his landlord's widow; Kathleen Peirce as Ken's ailing mother, reduced to a near-infant state by age and disease; and William Ragsdale as the glad-handing, ultimately useless Reverend Todd.

Because the play unfolds across dozens of scenes in locations covering two continents, Takeshi Kata has come up with a set design scheme that involves storing a vast number of props and furniture pieces upstage, to be called on when needed. Above the rather cluttered stage is a drop depicting, in hyperreal fashion, a partly cloudy sky reminiscent of Canaletto. It's an odd concept that admittedly facilitates the play's dramatic flow while lacking much of anything in terms of visual interest. The lighting designer, Keith Parham, has delivered a number of shadowy, almost noirish looks, many of them linked to onstage practical lamps. Some of these are quite striking, but in other cases, the actors' faces are difficult to see. Sarah Laux's capably rendered costumes help to define a broad range of characters. Daniel Kluger's sound design includes the soundtracks of several television shows, Muzak, and an airplane experiencing turbulence, along with his original music.

In any case, the production remains engrossing, and often deeply moving, throughout. As Ken's dark night of the soul gradually begins to lift, Man from Nebraska never turns whimsical or condescending; instead, it ends with a confrontation between a deeply shaken Nancy and a transformed Ken. There's no going back, he tells her; will they go forward into a future neither of them can foresee? I think I can predict that you'll care very much about what happens next. -- David Barbour

(16 February 2017)

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