Matthew Broderick is all grown-up. He’s greyer, a tad stockier, and he looks a little tired, but he’s still the same boy we all fell in love with in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And until August, he’s bringing a little of New York City and some otherworldly charm to London’s Wyndham Theatre in its latest offering, The Starry Messenger. Elizabeth McGovern is co-headlining the production together with Rosalind Eleazar, recently seen in Harlots. It’s written by Kenneth Lonergen, the mighty pen behind Manchester-by-the-Sea, and it’s directed by Sam Yates (Glengarry Glen Ross).
Broderick is Mark, a 52-year-old nerdy astronomy teacher at the New York Planetarium, soon to close its lunar doors. He’s married to the overwrought Anne (McGovern). Their teenage son, Adam, lives in the basement. We never see him, but he exchanges sarcastic, adolescent exchanges with his father.
Mark is alone, a would-be hitchhiker to the galaxy who knows he can’t quite make it as a husband, a lover, or even as a teacher who commands respect from his students. He speaks in a monotone voice, never really raising his voice – not even when his students are rude or angry. He’s Mr Nice Guy. A full-blown mid-life crisis is brewing. At home, everything oozes politeness in his marriage, but something is simmering underneath, waiting to bubble over.
And here’s the thing with The Starry Messenger – nothing really happens. The pot never quite boileth over. Mark has a closer connection to the stars beyond than to his son and wife. Mark and Anne spend most of their time discussing the minutiae of life (“we don’t talk about the cosmos, we talk about dry-cleaning”).
In walks Angela (Eleazar), a Puerto Rican single mother and nurse-in-training. Mark and Angela strike up a friendship which quickly develops into more. Before long, their relationship starts to sound a little jaded, like Mark and Anne’s. Starry Messenger could just as easily been named Normal People, but as we know, someone else thought of that title. There’s nothing exciting about any of the characters – this is a play about loneliness, hope and hopelessness. This cast of characters is star-crossed on every level, speaking out of sync with each other. No one understands who they really are and how they fit into their universe.
In a separate storyline, Jim Norton puts in a touching and often comical performance as Norman, one of Angela’s rickety cancer patients (he loves morphine so much, he would like to marry it.) Norman’s daughter has trouble communicating with her sick father, and she resents Angela’s intimacy to him, going as far as to accuse her of inappropriate behaviour.
The set is the sum of two anatomical opposites: the New York sky and the infinite world above acts as a canopy to the mundane and melancholic world beneath, highlighting the repetitive confines of Mark’s terra firma. The Starry Messenger might be a little drawn-out and Broderick’s Mark might be 50 shades of grey but there’s something intensely touching and nuanced about his character. A little piece of us falls in love with Angela, Norman and even Anne, although we have to wait until the final scene for that to happen.
Lonergan carves his characters out with great compassion, humour and intelligence. Just don’t expect any satisfaction from this star-crossed pilgrimage – you might leave feeling a little glum.
Starry Messenger is on at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 10 August.