If I have learned anything from The Starry Messenger, it’s that watching someone else’s mid-life crisis unfold is really quite boring. A decade after it’s off-Broadway debut, writer Kenneth Lonergan (of Oscar-winning Manchester by the Sea) and leading man Matthew Broderick look to the heavens together once again – not at the Gods, but at the stars.
Broderick is reprising his role as the quietly miserable astronomer Mark. Married to Anne (Elizabeth McGovern) and with a 15-year-old basement-dwelling son, he feels pretty sorry for himself. Mark is a textbook example of a mid-life crisis. A teacher at New York’s Hayden Planetarium, he’s disillusioned and sees himself as a failure. We follow his story alongside Puerto Rican single mother Angela’s (Rosalind Eleazar), an office worker and trainee nurse. Naturally caring, intuitive and kind, their two worlds collide when Angela seeks out astronomy classes for her son, and they begin a love affair.
But it is a love affair which seemingly erupts from nowhere. Broderick plays Mark with a bland, dry wit. Therefore, and I mean this in the nicest way possible: he has all the charisma of a bowl of baked beans. But despite this, and their 21-year age difference and utter lack of similarities, Angela and Mark “fall in love”, and I truly cannot understand how, or why, or where it comes from. Nonetheless, they begin their incomprehensible affair.
Eleazar is endearing and inquisitive as Angela, while McGovern plays wife Anne with warmth and strength, and a devastatingly accurate woman’s intuition. It’s a shame we learn very little about her character, and a further shame that in a scene in which she is trying to make plans for Christmas, she is received as annoying and overbearing, rather than organised and thoughtful. The same treatment is given to Sinead Matthews as Doris, who is understandably concerned and controlling regarding her dying father’s palliative care but is presented as an irritating busybody. Both Mark and Jim Norton as Norman are dismissive and impatient with women other than Angela, whom they are both attracted to, which is not only infuriating, but boring.
Broderick is at his best when delivering Lonergan’s witty and wry lines, particularly during interactions with his son, and one brilliantly obnoxious student, Ian (Sid Sagar). The rest of his performance, in romantic or sincere scenes, is so-so. He gives Mark a mundane, robotic tone which works great with sarcasm and in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, but not so much in tense scenes dealing with love, death, existentialism, the afterlife, etc.
While I can see that The Starry Messenger may be enjoyed by some as an intimate examination of love, human desire and unfulfilled potential, and there are some incredibly touching scenes, to me it mostly feels like three hours of an ungrateful middle-aged man throwing a wobbly. I’m not sure if this is due to Lonergan’s writing or Broderick’s delivery, but Mark is extremely hard to empathise with. The link between the vastness of the cosmos and Mark’s earthling problems also seems tenuous, either that or it goes over my head entirely. While Lonergan certainly has a talent for recording the minutiae of human interaction, this show is unfortunately lacklustre in places.
The Starry Messenger is playing Wyndham’s Theatre and booking until 10 August. For more information and tickets, visit the Delfont Mackintosh website.