The Starry Messenger presents a particular cosmic challenge. How do you make a play interesting when it’s about possibly the most boring man in the Solar System?
What playwright Kenneth Lonergan does is to fill it with characters who are far more engaging – and a lot of laughs.
Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, War Games) makes his West End stage debut as strait-laced astronomy teacher Mark at New York’s Hayden Planetarium in the late 90s.
His lack of dynamism is underlined in the opening scene when his class is interrupted by bursts of laughter from the more entertaining lecture taking place in the next room.
“I think he’s kind of boring,” observes one student after Mark’s slideshow on how the Earth looks from the Moon.
At home, Mark and his wife Anne (Elizabeth McGovern) have long, mundane conversations about family arrangements at Christmas while their teenage son shuts himself away in the basement with his electric guitar.
It’s all leading in one direction: Mark’s orbit is about to take him into that uncharted region of space known as The Midlife Crisis.
Here’s where Lonergan throws in his curveball characters. Mark begins an unlikely and awkward affair with single mum and trainee nurse Angela (Rosalind Eleazar – excellent).
But it is Angela’s touching relationship with elderly hospital patient Norman (Jim Norton) that provides the play’s most genuine and interesting human connection. And anyone familiar with Lonergan’s film Manchester by the Sea will know that he’s not averse to a tragic twist.
At over three hours long, The Starry Messenger isn’t in any hurry to deliver its message. But director Sam Yates gives the scenes a gentle rhythm that keep things moving, despite the script being peppered by long, static conversations.
The play’s funniest scene comes towards the end of act one when one of Mark’s students, nicely played by Sid Sagar, delivers an unsolicited feedback session on his “lacklustre” teaching style.
Broderick, who first played this role in New York 10 years ago, puts in a great performance as a man navigating dull middle age while contemplating the shape of distant galaxies.
I’d like to have seen more of McGovern, but her scenes with Broderick work well as she tries to keep their floundering marriage alive.
Lonergan’s play is clearly a love letter to the planetarium that played such an important part of his childhood. It’s also a slow-burning portrait of how life doesn’t always deliver on its early promises, set against the bigger mysteries of the universe.
The Starry Messenger is at Wyndham’s Theatre until 10 August