Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Director: Sam Yates
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Sitting along the western edge of New York’s Central Park, the American Museum of Natural History is also home to a planetarium, dedicated to astronomy and the understanding of space. The Hayden Planetarium as it is now, dates from 2000: the original to bear that name, constructed in the 1930s, was a relic when it was demolished 60 years later.
It is in the last days of that first Hayden Planetarium where playwright Kenneth Lonergan sets The Starry Messenger, with Matthew Broderick playing Mark, a pedestrian lecturer who dreams of returning to astronomic research while he gives classes to the most ignorant of beginners. But life has passed Mark by, his life is routine, going home every night to his wife Anne (Elizabeth McGovern) and exasperating conversations about juggling each others’ families at Christmas.
Broderick’s understated delivery perfectly suits Lonergan’s writing, which emphasises over and over again the stultifying ordinariness of the central character. Flashes of dry humour – sometimes in the writing, more often in Broderick’s line readings – provide occasional flashes of colour amongst the deliberate beige of Lonergan’s script.
Amongst this middle-class ennui, Rosalind Eleazar’s trainee nurse Angela is a potentially disruptive force. Meeting Mark while looking for an astronomy class her young son can attend, the pair embark upon an affair which seems less about passion and more about the need for an emotional connection.
Quite why Mark feels unable to forge such a connection with his wife is barely addressed. McGovern plays Anne as a woman well aware that their marriage is breaking apart, and is exasperated that her husband is so passive. Broderick’s Mark is a man who would rather leave a room than talk about his feelings.
And it is the passivity of this central character that holds The Starry Messenger back. Events happen to Mark, but they are nearly always initiated by others: by Angela leading him to the bedroom, by his work colleague (an underused Joplin Sibtain) putting in a good word, by an over-sharing student (Sid Sagar) who entertainingly devastates Mark with an unflinching, unasked for, critique of his professorial style.
As Mark’s astronomy lectures explain to a particularly troublesome student, moons orbit planets, planets orbit stars. Yet here, we have an inert man with better bodies orbiting around him: a moon at the centre of a universe, with all the imbalance that implies.
One would hope that, at over three hours in length, The Starry Messenger would have more to say about the human condition than “middle-aged men can have affairs and get away with it”. But there seems little else to take away from this.
Runs until August 10 2019 | Image: Marc Brenner