Sunday 19 May 2019

'I never tried to do anything before': Three Works by Kenneth Lonergan

Kenneth Lonergan’s 2009 play The Starry Messenger is about to open at the Wyndham’s starring Matthew Broderick and Elizabeth McGovern. Longergan’s work has enjoyed a series of Tony nominated revivals in New York over recent years: his 1996 play This is Our Youth ran on Broadway in 2014, followed by Lobby Hero (2001) and The Waverly Gallery (2000) in 2018, all three of which featured Michael Cera and the latter the then 86 year old Elaine May. But productions of his plays remain sparse in London. It’s a pity, as he is adept at creating subtle, character-driven dramas about moral dilemmas and everyday crises. Here, I write about three of his works, This is Our Youth, Lobby Hero and his 2016 film Manchester by the Sea.

In This is Our Youth – *Klaxon* one of this month’s #ReadaPlayaWeek choices – Lonergan is interested in three fucked-up young people in Reagan-era New York City. The detail and complexity of the characters is shown in the stage directions. Dennis, for instance, is described as ‘a very quick, dynamic, fanatical and bullying kind of person; amazingly good-natured and magnetic’ along with about 6 more lines that gives any actor plenty to get their teeth stuck into. When the buzzer goes in his Manhattan bedsit at the start of the play Dennis is too cool to answer it straight away. When he does, it’s his friend Warren, having had stolen $2000 from his dad, a lingerie mogul-cum-gangster. Neither seemingly have jobs, degrees or many prospects, and they spend most of the play either doing or talking about getting drugs. Dennis is more resourceful in this way, putting together a plan that would help Warren pay his dad back, and leave enough left over as profit. Mostly a two-hander, the play is largely a character study into the lives of these two dumb-ass kids negotiating their friendship and this supposedly intermediate time in their lives where all they’re seemingly expected to be is dumb-ass kids.

Dennis’ bullish confidence is balanced by a lofty sense of entitlement. He’s fine with tossing a football round his own apartment but when Warren does it and breaks his girlfriend’s sculpture he kicks off. Likewise, he’s happy to play the more superior one but resists and bemoans any sense of responsibility over Warren. Warren, although more likeable with his ‘aw-shucks’ personality, is frustrating because of his apathy and stupid decisions. And any attempts to fix those are either short-lived or result in more foolishness. The two play off of each other resulting in an Odd Couple-esque comedy. Stuck in this apartment, the two would be trapped in a destructive cycle of youthful naivety and privilege.

What begins to help them out of that is the play’s third character Jessica. In the second act, Warren and Jessica see each other again having spent the night (and his dad’s money) together in a hotel penthouse. He, typically, has already relayed the evening to Dennis, whereas she is unsure how she feels. There’s an excellent sequence of about five pages leading up to her exit full of convoluted deflection, negotiations and contradiction where they talk around the subject of how they feel. It’s painful to see how far Warren goes with wearing his heart on his sleeve. Throughout the play, he has a suitcase full of old collectables from the fifties: old toys, a rare toaster(!) and a memorabilia baseball cap that his grandfather gave to him. It’s supposedly all worth a lot of money but, although Warren is passionate about it all, he is also seemingly indifferent about their disposal. Things like the toaster, and why he’s bothered to lug it across New York with him, have a comic effect, but the baseball cap carries more emotional weight. After he offers this as a token to Jessica, he says he’ll burn it if she doesn’t take it. It’s a signal of how he’s changed and yet stayed the same throughout the play; he’s wanting make a meaningful connection to Jessica but still knows the true value of nothing (financially or emotionally). The reason why he initially likes her is because she’s attractive and he’s desperate but there is more substance to their time together. In fact, one of the reasons he likes her is because she challenges him: ‘Like right now you’re all like this rich little pot-smoking burnout rebel, but ten years from now you’re gonna be like a plastic surgeon reminiscing about how wild you used to be’. It is her maturity that makes him want to grow up and do something productive with his life. The play has a socio-political interest outside of the single room setting – all seeping into the world of the play by osmosis through the characters. It’s 1982 and a different world to the one their parents grew up in, but whereas these ‘lost souls’ may have the ideas, they have no idea about how to put them to any use. It’s a quirky, funny, and gently heart-breaking play.

Lonergan has no more so mined the depths of a character than in his Oscar-winning Manchester by the Sea. Its protagonist Lee (Casey Affleck) is someone who has a huge load of new responsibility thrust upon him. Lee has already hit rock-bottom, punishing himself by living in self-imposed purgatory after losing his children in a house fire which was, at least partly, his fault. He’s now lost his brother and is tasked with the guardianship of his teenage nephew. At one point, Lee, yet again unable to cope, snatches a gun from a policeman’s holster and, with no thought, raises it to his mouth in an attempt to shoot himself. It’s interested in how someone can even begin to move forward when faced with life’s tragedies. After the fire, Lee has lived in isolation in a basement apartment working as the janitor. Now, talking to his nephew – whether that’s about his estranged mum or sex – is just one of the many processes he has to (re)learn in his acquired role. Others include him organising a funeral and having financial responsibility. Lee’s complicatedness and stubbornness is subtly wrought by Affleck as he finds himself learning the ropes of parenthood again.

Lonergan’s dialogue is interested in a failure of communication. Much of the scenes between Lee and his nephew are made up of silences, awkward questions, interruptions, and overlay. Lee is despondent and has an inability to make small talk. How does someone without the emotional capacity and articulacy, or even the strength, begin to climb a mountain of responsibility? And as in life, amongst the tragedy there are everyday hiccups. These moments become typical in a film where there are no easy answers or pat conclusions in the narrative. Such moments as not having a clicker for the garage door or not remembering where they parked the car provide offbeat comedy. Darkest of all, in a flashback to the fatal fire, the legs of a trolley don’t fold correctly when the paramedics load Lee’s wife (Michelle Williams) into an ambulance as he watches their house and life burn. Such quirks epitomise the realistic details with which Lonergan fills his work.

The setting, Manchester, Massachusetts, is arguably another character. The film’s title implies a seaside place and, as an early scene shows, is strongly linked to Lee spending time with his brother and nephew fishing on their boat. But now its winter and Manchester acquires a cruelty in the cold weather. Most brutally, the ground is too frozen to allow burial to take place. But, as in many other works of literature and popular culture, the sea has a mystic quality. (Funnily, the two examples that come to mind are an episode from the first series of Mike Barlett’s Doctor Foster and The Simspons’ episode ‘Kidney Trouble’). The sea, and the coast, is a place of lost souls; of both peaceful contemplation and haunting memories; a place that can cleanse and torment.

In Lobby Hero, moral dilemmas are at the core of four people in a New York apartment lobby. Michael Cera played Jeff, a character not dissimilar to the one he played (Warren) in This is Our Youth. Jeff is a lobby security guard, naïve and perhaps a shirker who has now turned a new leaf: ‘I just don’t want to be one of those pathetic guys in lobbies who are always telling you about their big plans to do some kind of shit you know… they’re never gonna do’. Determined to be better at his job, he finds himself roiled in a number of Catch-22 decisions, such as whether to assist his supervisor in giving his brother a false alibi.

We saw Lobby Hero at New York’s Helen Hayes Theatre last year. Trip Cullman’s production was sometimes dwarfed by the revolve that it was played on, but all four gave actors gave top performances. A moustached Chris Evans as a womanising cop and Bel Powley as his wide-eyed New-Yoiker rookie were especially good. Furthermore, it’s probably the first play I’ve seen where I’ve come close to understanding people’s comparison of drama to music. Like a quartet, there’s intrigue and enjoyment from seeing each of the four characters on their own, and then how each one interacts with one or two others. And when all four come together, it creates something which can set light.

Like those in This is Our Youth and to a lesser extent than what Lee has to face in Manchester by the Sea, Jeff is confronted with a call to action. Throughout these works, Lonergan shows everyday folk in positions where they could or need to commit to doing more. But what is it Jeff could do? In the closing moments, he confides in someone, ‘I was kind of hoping this whole experience would encourage me to rise to greater heights’. But is the whole thing a convenient anachronism? And would one answer have definitely been the morally correct one? What could make him that titular lobby hero? Would he have played the bigshot with the moral high ground and would it have given him a sense of satisfaction?

The Starry Messenger is playing at the Wyndham’s until 10th August. For more information, please visit

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