Hold on to Me Darling
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Hold on to Me Darling: Theater review by David Cote
Among the classic motifs of a country & western song are lost love, patriotic pride, Mama, dogs and loneliness as wide as the prairie. For his sixth play since This Is Our Youth, Kenneth Lonergan omits the pooches but includes the rest—and then some—for a scruffy, shaggy and touchingly earnest portrait of celebrity in free fall. A pilgrim’s progress for a Garth Brooks–like megastar, Hold on to Me Darling is the Lonergan we’ve always loved: poet laureate of verbose losers, this time with a Tennessee drawl.
Music icon and film star Strings McCrane (Timothy Olyphant, pure snaky charm and carrying every scene) has just learned that his mother has died, and he’s in meltdown. Grieving and fretting in a Kansas City, Missouri, hotel suite and AWOL from a movie shoot, Strings gets no solace from his servile assistant, Jimmy (Keith Nobbs), or even from a rubdown by nervous masseuse and fan Nancy (Jenn Lyon). A heartfelt conversation with Nancy follows, and before long, the seminude Strings is strumming his guitar and kissing the stranger. His mother’s funeral, more romantic feints and wildly ill-advised career moves follow as Lonergan sends his pampered, discontented hero into a comic labyrinth to make something good out of his life. C.J. Wilson steals his scenes with dry, earthy aplomb, as Strings’s straight-talking, piss-taking brother. And as a distant cousin who attracts Strings’s attention, Adelaide Clemens mixes primness and passion to touching effect.
Running close to three hours, Hold on to Me Darling is almost defiantly overwritten and leisurely in its handling of character and plot. With any other writer, you might tire of these selfish, ethically awkward folks, wobbling between caricature and sudden depth. But even when Lonergan’s not sure of the way, he’s so damn fun to follow. His dialogue is sharp and funny, and his characters slip easy judgment (Nancy is more than a gold digger; Jimmy’s more dangerous than a lapdog). Even when he introduces a major character two-and-a-half hours in, you watch and listen.
Neil Pepe’s perfectly balanced production on a revolving set by Walt Spangler makes virtues of the script’s woolier byways, and he gets rich, firmly grounded work from the ensemble. Strung out though you may feel, you won’t want to let go.—David Cote
Atlantic Theater Company (Off Broadway). By Kenneth Lonergan. Directed by Neil Pepe. With Adelaide Clemens, Jonathan Hogan, Jenn Lyon, Keith Nobbs, Timothy Olyphant and C.J. Wilson. Running time: 2hrs 50mins. One intermission.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote