Ferris Bueller took his day off way back in 1986, but it’s taken 33 years for him to cross the Atlantic. Three decades on from his career-defining role as a truant teenager, two-time Tony Award winner Matthew Broderick has reached London, making his West End debut in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Starry Messenger.
Broderick and Lonergan met as teenagers, when they both went to classes at New York’s long-demolished Hayden Planetarium. The memory of their middle-aged lecturer stuck with them, and years later, Lonergan recreated him on stage in an Off-Broadway play starring Broderick. That play, in a new production by Sam Yates, is now at Wyndham’s Theatre until August.
Broderick stars as Mark Williams, a jaded astronomy teacher going through something of a mid-life crisis. Oscar-nominated American actor Elizabeth McGovern plays his wife Anne, and Rosalind Eleazar as his single-mother lover Angela.
But does Broderick make the best of his West End debut? Does Lonergan’s play prove powerful after its transatlantic transfer? Does The Starry Messenger garner a constellation of stars from the critics?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Kenneth Lonergan is best known now for his Oscar-winning film Manchester By the Sea, but he cut his teeth on Broadway, picking up Tony nominations for This Is Our Youth, The Waverly Gallery and Lobby Hero in the late 1990s and early 2000s. What did the critics make of this 2009 effort?
For some, Lonergan’s play is poignant and profound. Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★) calls it “a slow-moving but deadly accurate comic drama about life, the universe and everything there is to know about a mid-life crisis”, while Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★) labels it “a quiet, funny and perceptive study of a certain type of uptight disappointment and emotional paralysis”.
It’s “tenderly perceptic” according to Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre, ★★★★), “quirkily profound” according to Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) and “full of calm and gentle wisdom about existence” according to Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★).
“We may have seen more plays about sad, middle-aged white men in the 10 years since its Broadway premiere,” continues Bano, “but few have been as sensitive or, perhaps even, profound.”
“It’s hard to be sure what the play is really about, and the languid approach makes for three hours of nebulous theatre,” remarks Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★), while Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut, ★★★) comments that “there is a smart, poignant existential drama somewhere inside The Starry Messenger that struggles to escape the black hole of Lonergan’s indulgent impulses”.
Broderick had his big break playing Ferris Bueller 33 years ago, but he’s since carved a stellar career on stage and screen. He’s won two Tony Awards for Brighton Beach Memoirs and How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, and was nominated for a third in 2001 for The Producers. And he’s largely well-received by the critics here.
He “brings a mix of quizzical humour and gentle despair” according to Hitchings, has “a hangdog sincerity and warmth” according to Shenton, and is “wonderful as a man drifting passively through life like some lonely celestial body” according to Lukowski.
“Broderick’s performance defines New English reticence; he is so buttoned-up and mild that sometimes he seems to have come to a halt,” describes Crompton. “But he has perfect deadpan delivery and his eyes, warm and watchful, tell a story of his inner life.”
He’s “beautifully watchable”, says Allfree, while Billington commends how he “invests Mark with the right sense of troubled quietude and dry humour”.
“Broderick is great, so restrained and inward-looking that he becomes his own vanishing point,” observes Bano. “There’s no edge to his performance at all, no harshness. He’s so very gentle, as if someone’s turned his volume down.”
Not everyone is convinced. “In as much as he retains a boyish charisma while sounding affectless, he impresses, but he’s unable to suggest much inner life beneath the forlorn composure,” reasons Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★). “That’s the nature of the character rather than a limitation of the performance.”
Most though, think he triumphs with a tricky part. “Not many people could carry off this role,” writes Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail, ★★★★). “But Broderick somehow manages to be colourfully dull.”
Alongside Broderick is Elizabeth McGovern, who was nominated for an Academy Award in 1981 for her performance in the Milos Forman movie Ragtime, but who is now best known for her recurring role in Downton Abbey. Most critics think she’s served something of a raw deal by Lonergan’s script.
“I wondered what was in it for McGovern, though,” writes Marmion. “She has the potentially pathetic role of a needy, wounded wife to an inscrutable, evasive husband. Heads and brick walls come to mind. Yet she gives a beautiful study in spluttering, end of tether emotional exasperation.”
She’s “good but somewhat wasted in a minor manic pixie dream wife role”, according to Lukowski, and “has little to do” but still “finds exactly the right tone of well-mannered niceness” according to Crompton.
Both rising star Rosalind Eleazar and Father Ted’s Jim Norton, are widely praised, though, as Mark’s nurse lover Angela and her bed-bound ward. Eleazar has “tender warmth” and is “intuitive and sincere” for Hitchings, while Bano says “she’s so warm and kind, so curious and alive, so human, that the play becomes hers, especially towards the end”.
Norton, meanwhile, is “brilliantly truculent” according to Marmion, and their scenes together, writes Crompton, “crackle with a life and passion that sometimes feels missing in the rest of the play”.
Kenneth Lonergan’s play divides opinion – it’s soulful and sensitive for some, but overlong and indulgent for others – and Yates’ production undoubtedly underuses McGovern. Broderick is warmly received, though, somehow managing to make a mediocre man’s mid-life crisis watchable on his West End debut.
The Starry Messenger definitely not a solar-system-sized smash-hit, that’s for sure, but it’s not a galactic catastrophe either. It might have aimed for the stars, but a rack of middling reviews mean it’ll probably have to make do with just three.