Almost 40 years ago, Kenneth Lonergan and Matthew Broderick attended the same astronomy class at New York’s Hayden Planetarium, now long demolished. Their kind and patient teacher stuck so vividly in both their memories that, in 2009, Lonergan wrote a life for him in The Starry Messenger, and Broderick played that life out on stage.
The bittersweet nature of this feeds into the play. It’s full of calm and gentle wisdom about existence. We may have seen many more plays about sad, middle-aged white men in the 10 years since its Broadway premiere, but few have been as sensitive or, perhaps even, profound.
Broderick plays planetarium lecturer Mark Williams, whose dreams of being a proper astronomer have already burnt out when he meets a trainee nurse and has an affair with her. That’s it for plot; very little else happens.
Broderick is great though, so restrained and inward-looking that he becomes his own vanishing point. There’s no edge to his performance at all, no harshness. He’s so very gentle, as if someone’s turned his volume down. Rosalind Eleazar, as the nurse, Angela, fills in all the space he leaves empty. She’s so warm and kind, so curious and alive, so human, that the play becomes hers, especially towards the end.
In director Sam Yates’ staging, backdrops of deep, celestial indigo – skies and constellations – surround Chiara Stephenson’s revolving set, framed by a black semicircle. That arc is like the outline of a planet, and serves as as a reminder of the smallness of the lives it contains.
The mundane conversations between the characters are riveting because Lonergan – Oscar-nominated for writing and directing the 2016 film Manchester by the Sea – so skilfully sets the infinite against the depressingly finite; eternity against mortality. He and the cast expertly capture the many little nuances of human behaviour, such as Broderick’s slumping shoulders as he faces his mouthy teenage son. Perversely, it’s when the plot kicks in that the play suffers. That’s when we’re reminded that this is just a story.
Broderick and Eleazar are both brilliant, as is the always excellent Jim Norton, as a straight-talking old man on his deathbed. It’s a shame that Elizabeth McGovern, as Mark’s wife, Anne, gets pretty short shrift. In one scene she has to listen to him mansplain the universe while all she gets to talk about are the logistics for Christmas Day.
For the most part, however, this is a lush bit of writing, a dialogue between rationality and faith. How can Mark not be constantly agog and bowled over at the eternal majesty of the universe, like the physicist and TV presenter Brian Cox? Lonergan seems to suggest it’s because life is boring.
Sometimes, when you look up at the night sky, all it gives back is an inexpressible sadness about how tiny our lives are. That is depressing, but it’s also rather beautiful. The same is true of this play.