Man from Nebraska by Tracy Letts
Second Stage on 43rd Street
BS Rating: D+
BS on Show-Score: 60
This Tracy Letts play is tough to describe and even harder to critique. In fact, I need to warn you — the only way can I comment on this production is to ignore “the spoilers.” Man from Nebraska is not a new play. It was first staged at Letts’ home company, Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, in 2003, and falls between two of Letts’ most acclaimed works, Bug and August: Osage County. I can hardly think of two plays by a single author that are more different that those two works, and Man from Nebraska continues that diversity in style, subject matter, and themes. However, it is different in one very crucial sense — it’s almost impossible to figure out what this play is about.
Ken Carpenter, the man from Nebraska, is an insurance broker with a faithful wife and two grown daughters. He and his wife are devout Baptists who lead a very traditional and respectable life in middle America. That is until Ken wakes up one morning and realizes he no longer believes in God. His wife, Nancy, is shocked but committed to seeing him through this difficult period. His young minister, who comes off more like an amateur advice columnist than a religious confidant, suggests that Ken get away from Nebraska for a vacation so that he can sort things out. Ken follows his advice and goes off to London where he gets involved with an artist and his roommate/model, doing drugs and trying his hand at sculpture for several months, leaving his wife to believe he has abandoned her. I will not give way the ending, but suffice to say, it has an appropriate Baptist Nebraska conclusion.
However, that brief description of the plot does not communicate the audience’s experience of this play. While Ken continues to confess to his confusion throughout the two acts, we are never allowed to hear or see what is going on in inside of his head. In fact, it does not appear that the struggles with the acceptance or rejection of religion is of much interest to Letts. Ken’s relation to his family, wife and daughters (one in the play, the other only referenced), is not Letts’ focus either. We watch the central character discover ways of living that he never dreamed of — casual sex, drinking and smoking dope, being “an artist” — but while each of these experiences is graphically dramatized, we are never given any sense of the effect that these strange exploits have on Ken — not his struggle with belief, his family in Nebraska, or any other aspect of his life. The action (and that stretches the meaning of that word) goes back and forth between Ken’s London escapades and Nancy’s growing realization that she may be losing her mate. However, even Nancy’s coming to terms with her situation is never given any dimension or explanation — we just see her losing her faith in Ken through her facial expressions.
The style of the play is even more confounding. Much of the dialog is very simple, rarely revealing, and filled with very long pauses. It almost feels like a Pinter play without the biting double meanings in the characters’ speech. Each scene is a sort of vignette that just fades out. The cast is quite good, led by the reliable Reed Birney as Ken and Annette O’Toole as Nancy. Director David Cromer creates a dark atmosphere that seems appropriate to Letts’ tone and episodic style. But the strong performances and the evocative direction only leave the audience wondering what was the point of the play they had just experienced.
February 14, 2017