WHAT “Man From Nebraska”
WHERE Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St.
INFO $82; 212-246-4422; 2st.com
BOTTOM LINE Reed Birney wonderful in simplistic Letts play
If any actor can make you believe a character who says “I’m spending time with my thoughts on the advice of my pastor” while staring at a half-naked woman on a bed, that actor is Reed Birney.
Birney — who has quietly been one of the best things about New York theater for years and won his Tony last spring for “The Humans” — can win audiences over as just about any character. But it is hard to come up with anyone else who can imbue such honesty, decency and complex intelligence to the idea of an imperfect Everyman.
And so he does it again — and is new again — in “Man from Nebraska,” the 2003 Tracy Letts Pulitzer finalist that is finally having its local premiere in a nuanced production by director David Cromer.
But boy, does this play ever need both Birney and Cromer. Letts, creator of the Pulitzer-winning “August: Osage County” and the gritty “Bug,” has written about a middle-aged middle American’s crisis of faith by having him say — no kidding — “I’m having a crisis of faith.”
Deep, this is not. Birney plays Ken Carpenter, a lifelong Baptist and insurance salesman, married 40 years to Nancy (the delicately detailed Annette O’Toole). They have kids, grandkids and routines first telegraphed in short fade-out scenes of such cartoon dullness that they suggest a simplistic smugness on the part of the playwright.
But late one night, Ken flips from quiet to not-so-quiet desperation, sobbing into a towel over the bathroom sink to not wake Nancy. He admits he has stopped believing in God and heaven and no longer understands the stars. His pastor suggests a vacation.
He heads for London, where he meets people Letts seems to find much more interesting, which means we do, too. The seeker makes friends with a female bartender who reads poetry (Nana Mensah) and her flatmate (Max Gordon Moore), a gifted sculptor whose flash of caustic patter about Americans startles Ken — and us — out of the earnest torpor of guilt-laden self-discovery.
Ken starts drinking, takes drugs, jumps around in joyous ecstasy in a dance-floor spotlight. Birney makes us so happy for Ken that when the phone call comes about his dead mother (played with uncompromised misery by Kathleen Peirce), we dread that his party’s over.
The set by Takeshi Kata spreads bits of boring home and exciting London along a wide, horizontal stage. Bearing down on the action is an equally thick expanse of tangled, voluptuous, mysterious clouds. Will our Ken learn to understand the stars? Guess.