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Hold On to Me Darling

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Timothy Olyphant and Jenn Lyon
Photo by Doug Hamilton

A genuine superstar is catapulted into a swirling existential crisis when his mother dies, and his attempts to extricate himself from it end up causing nothing but pain and loss to everyone around him—and the audience can't stop laughing? Bizarre though may it sound, this is exactly the case with Kenneth Lonergan's new play, Hold On to Me Darling, which just opened at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater.

Good luck finding a funnier play about a sadder subject in the near future. Lonergan has so tightly interwoven the tragedy of Strings McCrane's life with the absurdity of finding solace everywhere except the places where it's most likely to be found that at least half the time you'll be embarrassed for not shooting out tears instead of cackles. (The rest of the time, your reaction is objectively okay. Probably.) Add in a director (Neil Pepe) and a cast (led by film and TV star Timothy Olyphant) who instinctively get what Lonergan is going for and deliver it with gusto, and you have a punchy, pointed comedy that lands with appealing ferocity. (For most of the evening anyway, but we'll get to that.)

And, yes, you really are asked to absorb what, in any other circumstance, would be a prickly plight. Strings (Olyphant), a meganame country singer who's lately branched out into acting, is first seen in a Kansas City hotel room, still reeling from the death of his mother earlier that morning. His only confidant, the only one who understands him, is his best-friend-slash-personal-assistant Jimmy (Keith Nobbs), who's particularly invested in ensuring that Strings is forever happy, even in his darkest hours.

To that end, he's hired one of the hotel's massage staff to help Strings relax, and when the woman, named Nancy (Jenn Lyon), arrives, of course she's a huge fan. And of course, the opportunity to put her hands all over Strings's mostly naked body is one she's not going to pass up. (Okay, she's married with two daughters, but so what?) Nancy's down-home small talk and unavoidable sense of hero worship is, for better or worse, just what Strings needs, and before long, the two of them are hooking up and heading out to mom's funeral in Beaumont, Tennessee.

Timothy Olyphant and Jenn Lyon joined by C.J. Wilson
and Keith Nobbs
Photo by Doug Hamilton

Upon arriving there, we learn, against no odds whatsoever, that neither is entirely what it appears. Nancy just can't wait to get in front of the cameras, even if it means pushing out an ancient member of Strings's family from the front row so she can be at his side. Strings, too, seems to need more than just someone to warm his bed. While paying his tributes at the casket, he meets a long-forgotten cousin named Essie (Adelaide Clemens) who captures his interest no less than Nancy did. And a visit to the home of Strings's brother, Duke (C.J. Wilson), plants the idea that maybe settling down is the best thing for this displaced country boy. And once Strings gets an idea, dislodging it from his mind is not easy.

None of this may sound like laff-riot material, and that's exactly the point—it shouldn't be. But Strings, so softened by years of success and yes-manning, no longer has any notion of who he is, and is thus constantly shaped and reshaped by the people around him. His instantaneous about-faces, followed by having to live with the usually disastrous consequences they bring about, skewer every stereotype of the Hollywood (or, in this case, Hollywood-Nashville) empty-head, and do so completely within the realm of believability.

Olyphant so nails Strings's over-the-top grief (endless, heaving sobs without a single visible tear) that you can't help but wonder whether he's intentionally bringing this on himself, or if he really is just that dumb. That he keeps you guessing while never letting you doubt is perhaps Olyphant's finest accomplishment here, but he's so controlled and committed that even the farthest-fetched moments (most notably when the action shifts to a feed store in the second act, for reasons that are too complicated, spoiler, and perfect to reveal here) are thoroughly honest and even moving. Olyphant even handles Strings's incredulous late-show breakdown, which could too easily be a scenery-chewer, with exhausted, if cynical, tact that pegs the character's burned out trajectory while maintaining the cruel, bozo logic of this world.

The other actors help along with this, too, with Nobbs especially good at suggesting suppressed longing and other indeterminate motives within his obsequious hanger-on, and Lyon a joy as the "other woman" who keeps steering her idol's life in the direction that most benefits her. Wilson's more backhanded comic sense lets Duke retain his necessary rough edge, while Clemens provides a stunningly strong contrast to everyone else in a totally straight role. These performances, however, are not excessive: They merely underline and amplify Strings's existence as one that revolves exclusively around him, which results in a delightful kaleidoscope of craziness as he learns the hard way where the limits of stardom are actually located.

Although Walt Spangler's infinitely adaptable, regularly rotating set plays a significant role in getting us from place to place across this careening story, the direction does even more. Pepe hits all the required buttons, but never too hard, and modulates the frenzy so you're never shoved into a moment or character change you're not ready for (a minor miracle, given how many there are); he keeps the spirits surprisingly high, and the underlying drama surprisingly potent, throughout.

The only real stumbles you'll find, in fact, come from Lonergan. The shape and scope of Hold On to Me Darling could not be better, but it does tend to wander into "too much of a good thing" territory. The play runs just under three hours, and it doesn't feel as if there's no filler—every scene may serve up plenty of fun on the whole, but there's enough lingering in each and repetition across the acts that each scene could be trimmed by about five minutes without losing much content. Were it lighter and more streamlined, the play might not come as close as it does to running out of steam at the very end, just everything needs to be strongest.

That's when Strings discovers who his real friends are and what really matters, a moment that shouldn't need to work quite as hard as it does to puncture wall of artifice Lonergan has erected around strings. Jonathan Hogan, outstanding in his tiny, last-minute role as the only person who could get through to someone as far gone as strings, guides it home through sheer force of talent, but it should happen naturally. There's just too much cruft to cut through. Lonergan, a noted perfectionist who often keeps rewriting to the last minute (and beyond), hasn't quite found the ideal rhythm for every beat yet. But he's close, and when he gets there, Hold On to Me Darling will be even more a play you won't want to let go of.

Hold On to Me Darling
Through April 10
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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