Kenneth Lonergan

He looks to the stars.

At the end of my interview with Kenneth Lonergan, he told me not to mention that he had gained weight. I didn’t think anything of it. During a call the following week, he repeated the request. Why would anyone care? When he said he had told other journalists the same thing, this seemed notable. How odd: Lonergan may finally have a new play—The Starry Messenger, a production by the New Group now in previews—but he remains as neurotic and melancholy as ever.

His waistline might have shifted since the last time he had a show in New York (2001’s Lobby Hero), but Lonergan, 47, insists that otherwise the hiatus hasn’t changed him. Asked what he learned working on screenplays like Gangs of New York (and other, less distinguished films), he can’t name anything.

By this point, the Lonergan type—from plays like This Is Our Youth (1998) and the indie classic You Can Count on Me (2000)—is familiar: flawed, paralyzed, a bit of a dreamer. He feels like a flop, but he doesn’t wallow in despair. He does not quit. “That’s the difference between them and me,” Lonergan says with his habitual wince and shrug.

That’s just self-deprecation. If Lonergan were the type to give up, he would never have finished a script, since he’s not exactly the kind of writer to toss something off in a few weekends. He has a play about a country singer that he hopes to produce next year, started a decade ago. There’s another in the works about a medieval knight he began in 1986. And his long-gestating movie Margaret—which he hopes will be released at the end of the year—was inspired in part by Stanley Kubrick, because the reclusive director was committed to moving at his own pace. “I never believed in the idea that you have ten pages to grab an audience,” Lonergan says. “I love these movies where huge dramatic things happen to people whom you have just met. Why should we care?”

Lonergan started The Starry Messenger—a bittersweet drama about the ennui of middle age—20 years ago. At the time, he thought that his old friend Matthew Broderick would be perfect for the part of the aspiring astronomer Mark, if only he were in his forties. Now he is. Broderick plays a morally flawed, but deeply sympathetic man who teaches at the planetarium but really wants to return to academia. He has a wife (played by Lonergan’s spouse, J. Smith Cameron) who communicates with him mostly about holiday plans, and he’s having an affair with a much younger woman that does not appear to have a future. Is it strange to have his wife play a person that his protagonist is cheating on? “It’s a little weird,” he confesses.

Messenger (which Lonergan also directs) grapples with getting older when opportunities close off and your horizons narrow, but like all of his works, it begins with a strong ethical, if nonjudgmental, point of view. “The play is about how you can lose your car keys, stare up into the sky and see four billion stars, and read in the newspaper that a tornado killed thousands of people,” Lonergan explains, “and of those three things, your car keys will have the greatest impact on you.”

As always, there are no villains or heroes onstage, and the plot resists easy didacticism and simple resolutions. That’s not to say it doesn’t have action, plot and some hilarious dialogue (a teacher-student conference exchange should be an instant classic). What is often misunderstood about the writer is that he is more of a traditionalist than he seems. He respects show-business convention, but on his own terms. He believes in a beginning, a middle and an end, and while he makes fun of Hollywood executives who demand to know what the lead has “learned,” Lonergan is committed to a character arc. His people change, just in small ways. At times, he even embraces some evolution.

To take one example, when I interviewed him almost a decade ago (back in his svelte days), Lonergan said he thought the greatest movie of all time was Die Hard. He has since reconsidered, concluding that the comic dialogue between law enforcement officers is too broad, taking the entire movie down a notch. And yet, every time it’s on television, he makes sure to watch at least part of it. Even if it’s no longer the greatest movie ever made, it’s still pretty good. And if there’s one thing you learn in Kenneth Lonergan’s world, it’s that sometimes pretty good will have to do.

The Starry Messenger is playing at the New Group @ Theatre Row.

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