NEW YORK—It’s not enough to say you want to change your life. You have to actually mean it. Not treating people as things to be used and discarded is a good first step in that process. It is a point driven home in Kenneth Lonergan’s comedic drama “Hold On To Me Darling,” presented by the Atlantic Theater Company.
Strings McCrane (Timothy Olyphant) of Beaumont, Tennessee, is a megastar, a country and western singer with mainstream appeal and a burgeoning film career. Strings, who often channels Elvis Presley with traces of a bad-boy attitude and the appropriate Southern twang, is also a darling of the tabloids due to his various romances and prima donna behavior.
Currently he’s in the middle of shooting his latest movie and about to go on tour to promote his upcoming album. But String’s life comes to an abrupt halt with the unexpected death of his mother, who never approved of her son’s career or his choices of female companionship.
Strings’s halfhearted attempts to reconnect with Mama, as she’s referred to, had all come to naught. It had been one of those things he simply put off, always figuring he’d have time to deal with it in the future.
Sitting in a Kansas City hotel room, Strings is determined to become the man his mama always wanted him to be. He finds he desperately needs someone real to talk to. His companions during this long night of self-recrimination are Jimmy (Keith Nobbs), his perennial “yes” man and gofer; and Nancy (Jenn Lyon), the hotel massage therapist who strikes up a friendship with the star.
Initially a story of a man looking into the abyss that is his life, “Hold On To Me Darling” soon becomes something else. It is also a biting satire of self-centered celebrities and the culture that allows them to flourish.
Strings is probably the most egocentric personality to grace the stage since the character Jacob Sterling sang in “What’s That Smell: The Music of Jacob Sterling.” He makes his mother’s death all about his own needs without taking into account anyone else his wounded psyche draws into the mix.
After baring his soul to Nancy—at least as far as he’s capable of doing—Strings heads home to Tennessee for the funeral. He stays with his older brother, Duke (C.J. Wilson), and finds another kindred spirit in Essie (Adelaide Clemens), his second cousin, twice removed.
Essie has written to Strings several times about the changes in her own life—letters that Strings claims he never received. This is an example of how little time Strings had for family before he himself needed them.
Drawing on numerous elements from the 1958 film “Sing Boy Sing,” “Hold On To Me Darling” also shows the dangers of putting people on a pedestal. Strings’s mama is all too soon revealed to be an unpleasant woman, more than a little interfering, and not at all on good terms with some of the former men in her life. Just like Strings, she was a hard person to be with.
Despite how laudable Strings’s effort to change his life may be, he’s not always realistic. As the play clearly shows, it’s not all that easy to walk away from the kind of celebrity status Strings has attained.
Simply abandoning his career and running the local feed store doesn’t take some factors into account. So many depend on his status for their own financial well-being. The hordes of screaming fans won’t simply go away just because he wants them to and no longer has any use for them.
Our country guards and follows celebrities of choice with nearly a religious fervor. When a celebrity acts in a way contrary to what is expected—from doing a movie that plays against type to ending a celebrity relationship—fans may be quite unforgiving.
No one doubts Strings has worked terribly hard for his success, and no one begrudges him the amount of money he’s made because of it. But his need for everything to center around him—from the death of his mama to ensuring his brother has call waiting—ultimately drives away those he needs most. Or alternatively, makes them stay in the hopes of getting some scraps from the Strings McCrane gravy train.
The actors all do a fine job. Olyphant in particular comes off as the sort of fellow you really want to root for, but he continually shows he’s nowhere near ready for the responsibility of starting over.
Wilson gets some of the best laugh lines as Duke, a hardworking sort who just wants to provide for his family and maybe have a stronger relationship with his brother.
Lyon and Clemens both work well as the women in Strings’s life—explaining more would be giving away too much of the plot. The same goes for Jonathan Hogan as Mitch, who has a small but pivotal role in the story.
Nobbs does well as the perennial hanger-on Jimmy. (In actuality, Lonergan could probably write another play just about the character Nobbs portrays and how he put his own life on hold to be at Strings’s beck and call.)
Softened with humor as it may be, the play pulls no punches at the end when it shows who holds the ultimate responsibility for the life a person has led, and the life they someday hope to lead.
It’s a compelling tale satisfactorily told.
‘Hold On To Me Darling’
Linda Gross Theater
336 W. 20th St.
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or AtlanticTheater.org
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (one intermission)
Closes: April 17
Judd Hollander is a member of the Drama Desk and a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com