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Hold On to Me Darling

"I want my mama."— Strings McCrane the country & western super star telling his devoted assistant Jimmy that he doesn't want either porn movies or a drink to cheer him up as he grieves over his mother's death.
Hold On to Me Darling
Timothy Olyphant and C.J. Wilson at the funeral of their mom, which causes Olyphant's Strings McCrane to question his celebrity life. That funeral parlor is one of Walt Spangler's richly detailed five rotating sets. (Photo Credit: Doug Hamilton)
Kenneth Lonergan's breakout play, This Is Our Youth (recently revived on Broadway), as well as The Waverly Gallery and often produced crowd pleaser, Lobby Hero, were all set in Manhattan. With Hold On to Me Darling he's abandoned the scene he knows so well for Beaumont, Tennessee.

Lonergan's country western superstar Strings McCrane is going in the opposite direction. He's headed back home to Tennessee — not just to bury his mother but to stay on and trade his multi-million dollar celebrity life for the simple world where he was Clarence McCrane, before metamorphosing into Strings McCrane (a savvy stage name that's both descriptive and a sound-alike link to another world famous singer-songwriter). That means no more around the world concert tours, hit recordings and movies, but marriage to a girl who loves him for himself, instead of a girl (or more) in every port. As for work. . . days spent behind the counter of the Beaumont feed store is a definite option.

Mr. Lonergan is no stranger to humor, either in his stage or film work. But I can't recall an audience at one of his plays constantly bursting into gales of raucous laughter as they did when I saw Hold On to Me Darling. His laugh filled world premiere about a hilariously needy serial womanizer and super narcissist is self-indulgently long at 2 hours and 45 minutes. However, Strings' attempt to finally live his life according to his mama's wishes is easy to take thanks to the cast, headed by Timothy Olyphant, as well as Walt Spangler's eye-popping revolving sets which seem to point to this production's ambitions to join the recent spade of off-Broadway to Broadway transfers.

The play takes its title from one of Strings' hit songs. You Can't Go Home Again would also work to describe Strings' attempt to live a simpler, more meaningful American Dream than the one his mother's death makes him see as a nightmare. He seems to have forgotten why so many ambitious young people want to leave the narrow small town world of places like Beaumont.

A sudden emotional trauma, like Mama McCrane's death, may have air brushed those memories into something more appealing and worthwhile than the pressures of one's current life style. But it's also not easy to give up the perks of that life — having devoted aides at your beck and call, the adoration of fans and easy availability of the best of everything —which naturally includes many beautiful women.

And so we have Strings in a Kansas City hotel (the first of Mr. Spangler's wittily detailed turntable sets) waiting to head to Mama's funeral. He's "all tore up inside" and thinking that Mama was right that he wasn't cut out for the life he's living.

Accustomed as he is to indulge in his every whim, Strings impulsively decides to jump the celebrity ship and make Mama proud. He justifies his disenchantment with a rant about his fans' intrusion into his private life as reflecting a sickness going through the country he loves with typically rich 10-percenter fervor. You wouldn't be amiss to see more than a little of the current showman presidential candidate as well as Elvis in String, especially as he proceeds to go about his plan to posthumously please his mother without really changing the go-with-the-moment habits to which years of celebrity have accustomed him. His inability to really change are confirmed even before he leaves Kansas City by his going to bed with yet another attractive fan, the hotel's massage therapist.

I won't spoil the fun of what follows with too many details. Needless to say, String's resolving the mom as well as daddy issues that are at the heart of his going home again makes for a failure-prone but hilarious journey: From a reunion with his half-brother (Mama provided a number of stepdads after String's own father left Beaumont for parts unknown when he was just eight) . . . complications involving Nancy the massage therapist and an attractive third cousin he reconnects with at Mama's funeral. . .and the aftermath of his actual attempt to trade his movie and concert career for the simple life of a Beaumont retailer. . . and a heart-tugging surprise finale.

Despite the play's not warranting its epic length, Neil Pepe makes full use of the superb cast and design team. Timothy Olyphant expertly delivers the laughs expected from Lonergan's dumb sounding but canny superstar, and even makes his emotional finale believable. I hope he makes time from his TV work to return to the stage more often. Dialect Coach Stephen Gabis deserves mention for helping Olyphant as well as the other actors authentic Southern talk.

Keith Nobbs is terrific as the devoted aide-de-camp who assures Strings can always find him "right on the corner of Beck and Call." C. J. Wilson gives one of the best performances I've ever seen him in as Strings' step-brother Duke. A scene in Duke's tiny home is priceless and feature some of the playwright's sharpest dialogue; for example, Duke's more realistic appraisal of the little place Strings says he always liked: "I live in a Goddamn hovel. It's an ashtray with furniture in it. It's an ashtray housin'four dogs, three cats, two kids and a wife who can't even shut up when she's fast asleep."

The two very different blondes who are part of Strings' trajectory are also excellent. Jenn Lyon makes massage therapist Nancy more than just another groupie, and Adelaide Clemens also gives a fully realized portrait of cousin Essie, the play's most grounded character.

Having seen many standout performances from Jonathan Hogan, I was wondering if he was listed in the program by mistake as the play moved close to its final scene. But the arrival of his Mitch is well worth waiting for and finally makes us really pity Strings . . .even though we're still pretty sure that the lure of money and fame will win the fight over the urge for a simpler, more authentic life.

Though I was disappointed in Mr. Lonergan's last few plays, The Starry Messenger and Medieval Play, Hold On to Me Darling returns him closer to the top of his game with fully rounded characters and a script with serious issues edging their way through all the laughs.

Links to previous Lonergan play reviews:
This is Our Youth
The Waverly Gallery
Lobby Hero
The Starry Messenger
Medieval Play

Hold on to Me Darling by Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by Neil Pepe
Cast: Adelaide Clemens (Essie), Jonathan Hogan (Mitch), Jenn Lyon (Nancy), Keith Nobbs (Jimmy), Timothy Olyphant (Strings McCrane), C.J. Wilson (Duke)
Scenic design by Walt Spangler
Costume design by Suttirat Anne Larlarb
Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt
Sound designH by David Van Tieghem
Dialects by Stephen Gabis
Stage Manager: Jennifer Wheeler Kahn
running Time: 2 hours and 50 minutes, includes 1 intermission
Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater 336 West 20th Street 
From 2/24/16; opening 3/14/16; closing 4/03/16
Tuesday to Thursday at 7pm; Friday and Saturday ay at 8pm (7pm 3/20), Matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2pm; Wednesday 2pm.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 3/12 press preview
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