By Kenneth Lonergan; Directed by Neil Pepe
Produced by Atlantic Theater Company
Off Broadway, Play
Extended through 4.17.16
Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street
by Artem Yatsunov on 3.25.16
Timothy Olyphant and Jenn Lyon in Hold On To Me Darling. Photo by Doug Hamilton.
BOTTOM LINE: A satire of a country-western super star's meltdown by noted playwright Kenneth Lonergan.
When his "dear sweet mama" passes on, international country-western and movie superstar Strings McCrane is beckoned home for the funeral. Played by actual celeb Timothy Olyphant, String's loss signifies a shift in his life that plunges him, head first, into an existential crisis. Rather than focusing on the overexposed and materialistic lives of pop, hip-hop, or rock stars, we get to appreciate the troubles of one wholesome singing cowboy. Of course, we quickly realize that Strings is no angel, and as the night wears on we discover again and again his overindulgence in romantic vices. Hold Onto Me Darling is a fun time, and—despite a very long running time and oddly miscast leading actor—is worth a look.
Laid out on a massage table, Strings begins to grapple with whether or not he can ever go back to being a superstar. "I'm going to dedicate my life to being a Person," he drawls out, reluctantly adding on, " just as soon as I'm done with this god damn space movie!" Lonergan gets at the reality of celebrity lives versus regular people's lives in one line, when Strings proclaims "I can't be Strings McCrane and I can't be anyone else!" The script taps into the weirdness of modern Fandom. Strings is treated by everyone he meets as both a star and just another country boy. It creates for some excellent comedy while offering a commentary on how much we as a society like to discuss the relatability of celebrities. Nowadays, we have no room left for the of novelty of discovering that 'celebrities are just like us;' we've seen everyone's sex tapes, we've live-tweeted through televised celebrity weddings, we've even elected presidents based on whether or not we could enjoy a beer with them. We feel that celebrities are inextricably part of our lives, indistinguishable from our own friends and loved ones. With Hold Onto Me Darling, Lonergan turns modern celebrity obsession into a farcical yet unassuming epic.
The script moves quickly but it arrives at its main singular idea too quickly—the death of Strings' mother pulls the country-western star into an existential crisis. That's not giving anything away; the superstar reassessing his values is pretty much the premise of the evening. Lonergan never pushes past this initially amusing concept and, at times, without a lead actor with necessary comedic chops and nuance, the dialogue and jokes feel repetitive. Nonetheless, Lonergan is kind of a one-liner genius and he doesn't skip a beat pulling off rapid punch lines.
Olyphant gives a one note performance, of varying pitches. The capable and accomplished director Neil Pepe sculpts String's journey well, and he's even able to bestow some necessary comedic timing upon Strings. The ensemble Pepe gathers, however, is inscrutable. All the supporting actors captivate and hold the room; the characters' transformations entirely drive the show.
C. J. Wilson as half-brother Duke is a brilliant, brassy, no bullshit, everyman. From ripping his half-brother up, "I've got four Pitbulls chained up in the backyard that know more about retail than you do," to memorable exclamations, like "Sweet Jesus at a downtown Memphis hair salon," Wilson holds court and has the audience eating out of his meaty palm all night long. He has a stage presence as big as the building.
Jenn Lyon gives full range as a disatisfied working class mother and wife who finally sees an opportunity to live the life of her dreams by shacking up with her musical idol. In one of the show's memorable moments, Lyons breaks it down for everyone on the topic of "11 years of the most horrible life," a desperately unsatisfied description of, well, ordinary life. Raising kids, not communicating with her husband, putting in physical and emotional hours as a masseuse...why wouldn't she want to trade places and become a proverbial princess? Lyon captures the loneliness of daily routine and the transformative power of being a music fan.
String's Cousin Essie is brought to life by Adelaide Clemens with a well of pathos. Clemens brings a warmth into the room; Essie might be lonely but Clemens loads her up with abundant heart. In her grief stricken speech bemoaning the death her aunt, String's mother, she recounts bad days that were warmed by ladies nights spent with the aunt—staying up late, smoking cigarettes and baking. "We'd eat pie 'til we're sick." Clemens is heartbreaking but not without reminding us of the simplicity of human tenderness.
Keith Nobbs as Jimmy, String's personal assistant of 12 years, is touching and hilariously hapless. Nobbs is a beaming presence, full of blissful admiration and adoring support for his best pal and boss. As the primary go between in all of String's affairs, Jimmy is diligent, with a penchant for tearful hugs and heartfelt declarations. "If you need anything, you know where to find me, Strings—on the corner of beckon and call."
The set design by Walt Spangler is stunning, and the run crew executing all of the meticulous changes must be completely brilliant. With elegance and seemingly no effort, this set transforms from a hotel to a funeral, a mountain bungalow, and even a feed store. Big kudos to Sprangler for all his tastefully vivid settings.
With a mammoth 2:45 running time and full-priced tickets at $65 a pop, at the very least you get getting plenty of bang for your buck. So, if you're a fan of Lonergan and you dig country music, get a move on and give this one a shot.
(Hold On To Me Darling plays at Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, through April 17, 2016. The running time is 2 hours 45 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays at 2 and 8; Thursdays and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $65 and are available at web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/953548. For more information visit atlantictheater.org.)
Hold On To Me Darling is by Kenneth Lonergan. Directed by Neil Pepe. Set Design is by Walt Spangler. Lighting Design is by Brian MacDevitt. Sound Design is byDavid Van Tieghem. Costume Design is by Suttirat Larlarb. Stage Manager is Jen Wheeler Kahn.
The cast is Adelaide Clemens, Jonathan Hogan, Jenn Lyon, Keith Nobbs, Timothy Olyphant, and C.J. Wilson.