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Theater review: Man from Nebraska loses its religion at Second Stage Theatre

Man from Nebraska
Photograph: Joan Marcus

 ★★★☆☆

Given the Cornhusker State’s voting in last year’s election (58 percent Republican), it would take a lot for me to give a damn about the midlife crisis of one white, male, Christian resident of Lincoln. Undaunted, playwright Tracy Letts does his best to make us care in this 2003 drama about faith and self-reinvention. Letts is so potent a writer, he almost succeeds.

“I don’t believe in God,” Ken Carpenter (Reed Birney, lucid as always) sobs into a towel in his bathroom, his flinty, appalled wife, Nancy (Annette O’Toole), gaping in confusion. In a series of short setup scenes, we see the couple in their car, at church, dining at some dreadful chain restaurant and visiting Ken’s dying mother in a nursing home. There’s small talk, always under the drone of a TV somewhere. Ironically, the more godforsaken the cultural milieu, the more folks seem to cling to God.

Ken’s spiritual crisis drives him away from Nancy and to England to clear his head. This is where Man from Nebraska should have grown extremely weird and unpredictable, but the action becomes perversely tamer. Letts can do grotesque (Bug) and emotionally raw (August: Osage County), but here he reins in his darkest dramatic impulses. The writing builds up a patient, humane character study, but it rarely raises the room temperature. Ken befriends a cynical but kind London barmaid (Nana Mensah) and her roommate, a mouthy sculptor (Max Gordon Moore), but neither sex, drugs nor art lessons can fill the hole in Ken’s battered soul.

At its core, the play—handsomely staged by David Cromer and scrupulously acted by a fine ensemble—is about choosing a path in life versus accepting what genetics or sociology hands you. That’s a perfectly juicy theme, but Letts makes it less a shocking journey to enlightenment than a dutiful stroll round the block.

Second Stage Theatre (Off Broadway). By Tracy Letts. Directed by David Cromer. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 10mins. One intermission. Through Mar 12. Click here for full venue and ticket information.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote         

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