Catalina Sandino Moreno and Matthew Broderick
in The Starry Messenger
(© Monique Carboni)
Catalina Sandino Moreno and Matthew Broderick
in The Starry Messenger
(© Monique Carboni)
There are several poignant and compelling moments scattered throughout Kenneth Lonergan's overstuffed new play, The Starry Messenger, currently being presented by The New Group at Theatre Row. Unfortunately, lackluster lead performances from Matthew Broderick and Catalina Sandino Moreno work against the subtle layering of emotion within the playwright's script. And with a running time of nearly three hours, the production -- directed by Lonergan -- tends to drag.

The play is set in New York City in 1995, and revolves around Mark (Broderick), a 46-year-old astronomy teacher at the old Hayden Planetarium. He's experiencing something of a mid-life crisis, precipitated by the imminent closure of the Planetarium to make way for the new Rose Center for Earth and Space, his father's recent death, a somewhat stagnant marriage, and losing out on a job that he really wanted. After one of his classes, Mark meets Angela (Moreno), a 28-year-old single mother and nurse-in-training with whom he develops a sexual relationship.

Broderick projects a low-key charm and is able to demonstrate Mark's outwardly nebbish persona. But he doesn't delve deeper to create much of an inner life for the character. Moreno's vocal delivery is often stilted, and while she's able to cry on cue, her more emotional moments aren't completely convincing. Moreover, the two actors evidence very little chemistry together -- a serious problem, considering the high stakes for Mark and Angela in both starting and continuing their affair.

Thankfully, the production has an excellent supporting cast. J. Smith-Cameron, as Mark's wife Anne, is able to reconcile the character's strengths and insecurities without seeming contradictory. Missy Yager delivers an emotionally rich performance as Doris, the daughter of one of Angela's patients (well played by Merwin Goldsmith). Kieran Culkin is quite funny as Ian, one of Mark's students who is intelligent, yet obsessive. Stephanie Cannon amuses as a student who has a hard time grasping some of the most basic concepts. Rounding out the cast is Grant Shaud as Mark's colleague Arnold, who has an understated yet strong presence.

There's some beautiful writing contained within The Starry Messenger, including a monologue by Mark late in the second act that gives the play its title. But the show's interweaving of numerous events in the characters' lives is not always done in a satisfying manner. An act of random violence that occurs in the second act comes across as overly melodramatic, although at least the scenes that deal with its repercussions are more evenly handled. Lonergan also introduces a number of potential dramatic conflicts, only to either leave them unresolved or let them fizzle out in an anticlimactic way. This is most egregious in the play's final moments, which leaves too much unsaid.