Ken Carpenter (Reed Birney), the title character of Tracy Letts’ Man from Nebraska, now playing at Second Stage, is a middle-aged man on a spiritual quest (or thinks he is, anyhow). In the pungent, mostly silent short scenes that start the play, we see him, with his wife, Nancy (Annette O’Toole), in their car, in church, dining in a local cafeteria, visiting the nursing home where Ken’s mother (Kathleen Peirce) is slipping into dementia, and watching TV at home. The comic banality of these ultra-familiar domestic scenes is a piece of sleight-of-hand dramaturgy. Yes, you’re tempted to think, this is Nebraska: long-married couples, all conversation gone, driving through emptiness to the same dreary places, filling the void with the raucous dither of the TV set, the empty blather of a go-getter minister (William Ragsdale), or their own fake-cheerful chatter hiding their discomfort at the sight of an enfeebled parent. How Midwestern. How dull.
But Letts, born and raised in Oklahoma, doesn’t write off Plains States people so glibly. What follows that string of drab moments is the sight of Ken sobbing frantically over his bathroom sink. To his wife’s panicked, but seemingly unaffectionate, inquiries, he explains, “I don’t believe in God.” For him, the monotonous stability of what used to be viewed as a solid middle-class, middle-American life has broken down. When his married daughter, Ashley (Annika Boras), suggests that talking to a friend might help, he replies, starkly, “I don’t have any friends.” Yet Ken runs an apparently thriving insurance business; we’ve already seen him say hello, albeit perfunctorily, to an acquaintance. He lives in Nebraska’s capitol, Lincoln, with a population of over 200,000. Why has his social life, along with his church goin and his marriage, suddenly turned so arid?
Letts doesn’t tell us. Instead, his powerfully intriguing premise, the despair of which Birney embodies so movingly, gets vitiated as the action proceeds. The problem’s partly one of detail: Letts has made Ken’s life such a blank that we wonder less why he’s lost his faith than how he’s managed to live this long without noticing its absence. That, too, holds a wider middle-American truth: Our comfortably-off, marketing-based society has lured countless Americans into believing, contrary to Socrates, that the unexamined life is the only one worth living. Still, people whose inner life has shriveled find external objects and tasks with which to distract themselves from the emptiness inside – hobbies, social rituals, travel. Ken, who’s apparently never even taken a vacation, lacks all such recourse. He doesn’t even appear to dote on his grandchildren.
Nor does Ken’s announcement that he doesn’t believe in God precipitate any spiritual discussion, even with his hopelessly inadequate pastor. A similar question tore an entire congregation apart in Lucas Hnath’s Obie-winning The Christians, seen at Playwrights Horizons last year (and now being widely produced around the US). In Hnath’s play, the debate had its limitations – you wondered at points if either of the rival ministers had ever studied theology – but at least the subject was confronted head-on. The issue of what faith in God means, and what commitment it entails, was opened fully for audiences to ponder.
Letts, instead, essentially changes the subject. Ken’s flummoxed minister, fishing for a solution, suggests that he get away from Lincoln by himself for a while. Ken decides to go to London, where he was stationed as a young man in the Air Force. David Cromer’s quiet yet sharp-edged production craftily marks the change by moving the action, which has been cramped on the left half of the stage, to the right, suddenly opening up a broader vista. But Letts doesn’t show us Ken’s life broadening to match. Instead of immersing himself in any form of London life, he checks into the Leicester Square Sheraton, passing his afternoons in the empty hotel bar, attempting to strike up a friendship with its female bartender, Tamyra (Nana Mensah), who has no patience with the midlife crises of well-heeled American tourists. When Ken says he doesn’t believe in God, her response is, “Join the club.”
Ken’s simplicity and generosity, of course, ultimately win Tamyra’s friendship, and he soon finds himself involved with drink, drugs, and the Bohemian life she shares with her boyfriend, Harry (Max Gordon Moore) an Oxford-educated aspiring artist and would-be angry young man. (He describes his working-class accent as “an homage.”) Under their influence, Ken begins to fancy himself artistic too, reading Neruda and taking sculpture lessons from Harry.
Though lively, this whole segment of the play feels frankly like filler. We see Ken diverted (couldn’t he have found an adult-ed art class in Lincoln?), but his exploring doesn’t seem to affect his spiritual condition. His prolonged London stay also makes you wonder just how wealthy he is. Scenes back home show Nancy, increasingly distressed over his absence, fending off an unwanted, coarse-grained suitor (Tom Bloom). Finally, an inevitable life event brings Ken home, and he and Nancy have a reunion, the cautious optimism of which doesn’t seem wholly earned.
A highly proficient playwright, Letts is also a powerfully gifted actor (as witnessed the last Broadway revival of Albee’s Virginia Woolf). Like many actor-dramatists, he has the dangerous instinct to reach for what’s theatrically “effective” without fully weighing how integral it might be to his story. He makes Ken’s crisis impressively stark, and his subsequent wanderings in search of meaning amusingly entertaining, but the two never add up. Viewed as a total picture, Man from Nebraska turns out to be riddled with the wrong kind of questions – not the big ones a great playwright asks us, but the niggling little ones that we want to ask the playwright. They keep cropping up despite the fierce conviction that everyone in Cromer’s cast brings to the performance. At the dubious final reconciliation, Birney’s almost beatific optimism and O’Toole’s slow, struggling transition from fury to forgiveness provide a scene that – if you could believe all that led up to it – would provide the most heartening happy ending seen onstage in years. If only.