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He Said: Man From Nebraska: A Hamster in Search of a Wizard

He Said: Man From Nebraska: A Hamster in Search of a Wizard
Reed Birney, Nana Mensah

Reed Birney, Nana Mensah

What are the top five things that a hamster does?  Spin in his wheelie thing? Stay in his cage?  Or does he break out? This is essentially the question that playwright, Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) is putting out there for us to contemplate in this quiet meditation of life. The provocative play, Man From Nebraska, which opens tonight at the Second Stage Theater, sets in motion a crisis of faith for his male lead, Ken Carpenter, played by the fearless Tony-winning Reed Birney (The Humans).  The first segment is a stunning bit of quiet story telling. Without that Nebraska small town stillness, the break wouldn’t hit us so hard. We are as confused as his wife, Nancy, played with a perplexed perfection by Annette O’Toole (Southern Comfort-so sad I missed this).  What does one say or do at a time like this when we see our own ‘hamster ‘ flail against his cage walls?

Nana Mensah, Max Gordon Moore, Reed Birney

Nana Mensah, Max Gordon Moore, Reed Birney

Joining in with the wife’s confusion, is his daughter, Ashley, wonderfully portrayed by the brave Annika Boras (David Cromer’s Our Town at the Barrow Street). She struggles to comprehend what this all means.  The world she lives in is the one she learned to take comfort in. She learned from her parents to find safety and structure inside these walls, and he is casting it aside; escaping it  for something unknown. Her father leaves his wife (temporarily) and his cage, coaxed out into the world by a caring yet flummoxed Reverend Todd (William Ragsdale) to go on a journey of discovery. Will Ken find what he is searching for? A way back ‘home’ in essence, like Dorothy to Kansas, back to a place of peace and understanding.

Max Gordon Moore, Nana Mensah

Max Gordon Moore, Nana Mensah

Once outside his small hamster cage, the Man From Nebraska is, not surprisingly, confused as to where to seek his salvation. Stunned by the bright big world and after a turbulent flight, he finds comfort and refuge in the hotel bar. All those he encounters, the wild woman, Pat (Heidi Armbruster), the mad artist, Harry (Max Gordon Moore), and most importantly, the magnificent and insightful Tamyra, (Nana Mensah), the bartender who introduces him to more than just a new cocktail. Unbeknownst to all three, in some wild and glorious ways, they help him down the yellow brick road, in his hope to find an the answer. Is it ‘God’ he hopes to find? A wizard to help him back home? Or just to understand what is behind the wizard or his God?

Reed Birney, Heidi Armbruster

The one piece of this puzzle that doesn’t seem to add anything to this compelling journey is the muddled interactions with Nancy and the world Ken left behind. There are powerful moments of confusion and anger between mother and daughter.  They register on numerous painful planes of emotion; abandonment, deception, victimization to name a few. And there are no easy answers here.  There are also some beautiful quiet moments between Nancy and Ken’s ailing mother, Cammie Carpenter (a wonderful Kathleen Peirce, also from Cromer’s Our Town) causing us to recognize Nancy’s isolation. But the interactions involving the Reverend’s father, Bud Todd (Tom Bloom) and Nancy don’t seem to expand on anything besides Nancy’s already finely detailed abandonment and despondency. It’s obvious that both Nancy and Ken believe and value their marriage more than God itself, but I’m not sure we needed this added test to know this about Nancy. Her battle with her angry daughter set that stage earlier on.  Nancy’s role in his quest is something that never gets fully incorporated enough to feel satisfying or as detailed.

Director David Cromer (The Band’s VisitThe Effect) does a superlative job slowly sussing out the details and the layers of Ken’s life, loves, and his lost soul that set him out on this journey of discovery, but not such a good job with Nancy. The space is a constant whirlwind of places and pieces making up the landscape of his journey (spectacularly detailed and creative work from scenic designer: Takeshi Kata; costume designer: Sarah Laux; lighting designer: Keith Parham) His unhappiness and disillusionment is the tornado in his soul that throws himself out of his sweet Kansas, I mean, Nebraskan home (lovingly echoed in the original music and sound design: Daniel Kluger). We hold our breath at the end to discover if and what he discovers about himself and the heavenly powers that be. I would have enjoyed a greater sense of clarity and understanding, and most likely Ken would as well, but the last few minutes are tense and completely engaging. Is there no place like home? Ken is definitely trying to find that out.
For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Off Broadway
@#frontmezzjunkies

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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