Atlantic Theater Company is valiantly waging a war for our attention spans this season: All three of its mainstage plays have run over two and a half hours, a bold choice in this age when 90 minutes, no intermission seems to be the standard. Their latest battle, the world premiere of Kenneth Lonergan's Hold On to Me Darling, can be fairly categorized as a draw. This laugh-out-loud comedy about a narcissistic country singer going through a midlife crisis is undeniably hilarious at points. It also has a tendency to drag, with the plot often wandering away with our patience.
The story concerns Strings McCrane (Timothy Olyphant), the third biggest crossover star in country music. He has recently left the set of a multimillion-dollar film to mourn the passing of his mother in Tennessee. Completely bereft, he takes comfort in the sycophantic praise of his personal assistant, Jimmy (Keith Nobbs), and the magic fingers of the hotel's masseuse, Nancy (Jenn Lyon). "This feels like the first real conversation I've had in years," he tells her as she rubs down his nude back (we get the feeling he says this to all his massage therapists). Just as soon as he begins to get extra close to Nancy, however, he rediscovers his comely cousin, Essie (Adelaide Clemens), at the funeral home. This close encounter with the eternal (and two beautiful women) has Strings thinking about his priorities. Maybe he should quit his film and music commitments, move home, and work at the feed store. "I think you're crackin' up," responds his older brother Duke (the delightfully dry C.J. Wilson), the only person unwilling to entertain his fantasies.
Lonergan (This Is Our Youth) astutely captures the American habit of speaking in cliché. "I know it's wrong somehow, but Lord it feels so right," Strings says as he embraces Essie. We can understand his career success by the way he seems to think and speak exclusively in country music lyrics (Olyphant is especially good at delivering these with a straight face). He monologues and waxes poetic while Jimmy punctuates his sentences with validation (Nobbs proves to be the ideal yes-man). One gets the sense that he's not used to being challenged or contradicted. He's completely ridiculous, but he's by no means the funniest one up there.
Lyon has us rolling in the aisles as Nancy, a woman whose body language betrays the words coming out of her mouth. When Strings asks her to sing him a song, she replies, "Oh, I could never sing in front of you," while reaching for the guitar. She habitually brings up the fact that she was raised on a farm, her country girl street cred. In these deluded (yet truthful) characters, Lonergan has crafted an acerbic satire of the social-media age, in which we live by inspirational platitudes and politician-like biographical narratives.
As funny as the play is, the laughs start to sputter as the second act circles the runway, looking for a place to land. After spending 90 percent of the show offstage, Jonathan Hogan delivers a memorable performance in the somewhat thankless role of the deus ex machina (no spoilers here). A generous interpretation might argue that a neat resolution would undermine the themes of a play taking aim at ready-made morals. Certainly, Lonergan leaves the story tantalizingly unresolved, but by the time he does, we've lost all interest.
This is despite the best efforts of director Neil Pepe, who has a genuine talent for comic timing: All the laugh lines hit right when they should. While it doesn't completely compensate for a script in need of trimming, great performances and first-rate design help smooth the journey.
Walt Spangler's brilliant puzzle of a rotating set efficiently provides for the multiple interiors required by the script. A system of hallways connecting the rooms not only allows for the stealthy movement of the performers, but helps to suggest adjoining rooms in the houses and hotels depicted downstage. Suttirat Anne Larlarb's smart costumes manage to find subtle distinctions in American casual (the difference between Strings' hyper-styled working-class southern look and Duke's realness is crystal clear). Sound designer David Van Tieghem underscores the transitions with sentimental country music, giving us a sense of the art these characters ingest on a daily basis. With such a steady diet of maudlin clichés, should we be at all surprised by what comes out the other end?
That's not to say this is a trait exclusive to American country music. Our movies, television, and even theater all too often embrace thematic banality and focus-group moralism. With frisky good humor, Hold On to Me Darling takes us full circle: It's art imitating life imitating art.