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The Man From Nebraska

Tracy Letts's play about a man's spiritual crisis is often unbelievable and sometimes boring, despite exemplary performances by Brian Kerwin and Kathy Baker.

Brian Kerwin and Kathy Baker
in The Man From Nebraska
(Photo © Cristofer Gross)
Tracy Letts's previous plays, Killer Joe and Bug, moved from regional theaters to Off-Broadway, where both had successful runs. The Man From Nebraska has yet to have such luck, despite having been a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2004. Based on the current production at Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory, starring Brian Kerwin and Kathy Baker and directed by Oscar winner William Friedkin, this play won't be seen in New York any time soon.

The early scenes, set in a car, a church, and a restaurant, show Ken Carpenter (Kerwin) and his wife Nancy (Baker) being extremely reticent with each other. Only a stop at a nursing home to visit Ken's aged, ailing mother (Jane A. Johnston) proves that the couple can talk with someone else present. Back at home, in front of the television and then preparing for bed, the familiar routines and silences between the apparent husband and wife continue. Suddenly, Ken is crying in the bathroom in the middle of the night, scaring his wife out of her composure. Is he having a heart attack? A stroke? Nothng that simple. Ken has suffered a crisis of faith; he no longer believes in a God that will answer his prayers, reward him for good deeds, or punish him for bad ones.

Nancy baffled by Ken's crisis, and so is their oldest daughter, Ashley (Susannah Schulman), who works in Ken's insurance business. Nancy calls in their Reverend (Ben Livingston) for help. His suggestion is that Ken should take a trip away from Nancy, away from Lincoln, away from business and the ordinariness of everyday life. So Ken hops on a plane to London, where he has fond memories of time spent in the Air Force nearly 40 years earlier. But not even Pat (Laura Niemi), the flirty seductress in the seat next to him, can get a rise out of Ken, who seems totally lost and out of it.

At the bar in his hotel, Ken finally makes a connection with Tamyra (Susan Dalian), the young bartender. She befriends him, mostly because Yanks are good tippers. Ken latches onto her and, eventually, her flatmate, the penniless sculptor Harry (Julian Stone). The three forge a bond as Ken continues to examine his previously unexamined life. Back in Nebraska, everyone but Nancy feels that Ken has abandoned his wife for good; she is sure he will return to her but, in her loneliness, she begins spending time with the Reverend's randy father (Hal Landon Jr.). Meanwhile, in London, Ken can't consummate a hookup with the raunchy Pat because all he can think of is Nancy.

Letts has created two very intriguing characters in Ken and Nancy, but though he has provided a believable shock to their complacency, his follow-through is a letdown. It's not very believable that Ken would spend six weeks in a London hotel searching for his lost faith, and it's even more incredible that he would spend so much time with the wretched Harry and the condescending Tamyra. Their motivation -- Ken's money -- is obvious, but Ken's is not.

On the plus side, the dialogue is naturalistic and truthful; and the acting, especially by Kerwin and Bates, is exemplary. But Letts has written so many Pinteresque pauses into the dialogue that the momentum of the play is thrown off. Moreover, Friedkin has staged The Man From Nebraska as if it were a series of film clips, never using the entire stage until the final scene. With the help of scenic designer Christopher Barreca's sliding panels and Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz's pinpoint lighting, Friedkin only shows what he want us to see within a given frame, yet even the scene changes -- which require nothing more than the closing of one panel and the opening of another -- seem to drag on too long. Boredom and detachment are the results.