Strings McCrane. Real name – Clarence. He is a country and western superstar singer, sex god, seller of millions of records, with more acolytes than Davros has Daleks, and a film star to boot. He has everything. Money, girls in every town, a personal assistant who manages his every whim…it is the life everyone craves, the one he has. But there is one thing he does not have: a mother. She has just died. And her death has a caused a kind of existential crisis in the mind of poor, tragic Strings.
Well, not really, but that is how he convinces himself the world is. He feels like her death has sealed him off from the possibility of meaning something, of being a worthwhile person. While he decamps from the film set where he is starring in a movie which has already been delayed by some weeks and many millions because of “his method” and ruminates about abandoning the tour he has been contracted to undertake to promote his new album, Ain’t No Time For Cryin, he holes up in a soulless hotel, smashes a superb guitar and considers a whole new life.
His ubiquitous personal assistant, Jimmy, tried to keep Strings happy but the usual procedures are not working. The death of Ma Strings has opened a chasm in Strings’ soul – he can never be the person his Mama wanted him to be. What to do? In a fit of self-obsessed indulgence, Strings elects to depart the world of superstardom and all it entails and lead a quiet life in a small country town. All he needs is a good woman who will make his departed Ma’s day…
This is Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful dissection of modern day celebrity madness, Hold On To Me Darling, now playing that the Linda Gross theatre as part of the Atlantic Theatre Company’s 2016 season. Directed by the company’s artistic director, Neil Pepe, this is a wonderfully funny, blisteringly acerbic study of modern day celebrity status – and all the accoutrements and detritus that accompanies that status. Like all really good comedies, it walks the very fine line between humour and horror, and although there are many tremendous laughs along the way, the final images are desolate and tragic, almost unbearable.
Lonergan’s mastery of the topic is remarkable. His dialogue is finessed to within an inch of its life, every phrase, every word perfectly formed for the mouth that utters it. His writing is acidic, superficial and insightful all at once, the sure sign of a master craftsman. Phrases are uttered which only come to bloom minute later, but every bloom is a prize-winner. Characters are etched deftly but deeply; no chunks of exposition are needed. Situation and sly words make for intensely comprehensive characters.
Strings/Clarence is impossibly attractive and, apparently, impossibly talented. A music idol, the truth is that when he strums his guitar alone, unaided by auto-tune or studio enhancement, he sounds little better than a beaver gnawing at fresh wood. Does he actually have talent? Does it matter? Is the cult of the Celebrity in 2016 such that talent is irrelevant? All that is required is looks, commitment, compromise and acquiescence? And a personal assistant who will make anything happen?
It seems so.
What Lonergan achieves in this play is quite extraordinary: it is a modern day tragedy played as a farce, peopled with characters that everyone alive today knows, adores or has encountered. Perhaps is.
Hold On To Me Darling also taps into that modern era fear : the horror of not living up to the expectations of your parents or, worse, the horror of turning into the worst version of the parent you don’t like while idolising the other parent. First World Mental Disorder 101.
Strings can buy anything, do anything, have anyone he wants – his fame has assured that. But without his Mama’s blessing he feels a fraud, a wastrel, a loser. With her death, he is trapped. He can never make himself good to his mother, so what does he do? Narcissistically, he decides that everyone else can go to Hades; he must fulfil a non-existent pact with his mother. Give up the high life, return to his small town roots, ditch is high profile fiancée and find a good woman who live behind the white picket fence with him and bear him his children. Uh huh. It’s that easy.
Strings meets a local small town masseuse. He is tense after the news of his mother’s death so Jimmy, his devoted assistant, arranges it. Nancy, mother of two, wife of one, arrives to relieve Strings’ tension. She admits she is a superfan and before you can smash another guitar, Strings is having a happy ending and not just a deep tissue massage variation. Jimmy is slightly appalled but runs with it. Strings visits his brother prior to his mother’s funeral and they fight and argue and reminiscence as all brothers do. Well, not perhaps all…Strings tells his brother, Duke, that he wants to give up showbizness and the high life and move back to his hometown and work in a feed store. Duke, unsurprisingly, is doubtful.
At Mama’s funeral, Strings’ entourage includes Jimmy and Nancy the masseuse, who has now left her husband for Strings. Duke is there too, somewhat, but quietly, appalled. Also there is Essie, Strings’ cousin removed several times. She was a good friend of the departed. Essie is vulnerable and lonely, having lost her father and husband in a drag racing accident, so, instinctively, Strings smells an opportunity for inappropriate sex. And takes it.
This shatters Essie and leaves Nancy slightly bemused. Like some sort of southern velociraptor, Nancy consumes Strings, secures his agreement to marriage and then, coldly, cruelly, bloodlessly, sends Essie packing. Jimmy, all the while looking on, feels more and more hopeless.
What happens thereafter…well, that would be telling. Suffice to say there are plenty of surprises and upheavals, most of them quite funny, but the final one is anything but funny – a marvellously astringent scene between Strings and someone he thought cared nothing for him. It’s powerful and fundamentally human – a wonderfully black and crisp semi-conclusion to a remarkably hilarious play.
In part Greek tragedy, in part Shakespearean comedy, in part Alan Ayckbourn/Neil Simon, Hold On To Me Darlingis cutting edge comedy/tragedy. It looks at modern life through a harsh, uncompromising spectrum and judges it, rightly, to be entirely lacking. While there are many, many laugh out loud moments, there are many acute moments of febrile elucidation about the modern condition. Lonergan has penned a masterpiece and Pepe has given it a production which makes it soar.
Timothy Olyphant is perfect as Strings/Clarence. He has that complete ease about his masculine attractions and complete, undeniable charm; he believes in himself enough for everyone. And if that was not enough he keeps Jimmy (a pitch-perfect Keith Nobbs) around as his perfect buddy assistant to arrange those threesomes, massages, new guitars or whatever else seems needed. He is a master in doublespeak: he says what he thinks he means or what he thinks he should mean, without really caring what it actually means.
Despite his superficiality and duplicity, Olyphant manages to keep the audience onside, to get them to love him as he want to be loved. Although he constantly says one thing while meaning another, Olyphant’s Strings is as adorable as Bambi but as mean as Ursula – totally enchanting either way. His comic timing is superb, drier than a dustbowl and offhandedly offensive in a myriad of ways. Olyphant establishes excellent relationships with all of the onstage characters, but no relationship is the same, event though some have a vampiric quality. He morphs from the tense broken figure in the first scene, through the feed-store owner hopeful, to the “I’ll make a deal” with the film companies and record producers realist. It is not until the final scene, when his life catches up with him, that any glimpse of the real Clarence, as opposed to the entirely manufactured Strings, makes an appearance.
But, in every way, from sly seduction to ruthless autograph-hunter abuser, Olyphant is mesmerising and acutely observant of the modern celebrity condition.
He has superb support throughout.
Keith Nobbs is genuinely marvellous as the permanent faithful assistant, Jimmy. He seems gay, he seems in love with Strings, or at least intoxicated by his fame. But is he? Is his highly personal admission to Essie a cry for help or an admission of stupidity? Either way, it is perfectly judged. Every flick of the hair, sly aside, speedy withdrawal from a room, hushed admission, anguished plea for inclusion – these are the hallmarks of sycophancy and Nobbs plays them all like an Wimbledon champion. He is intensely amusing and desperately tragic all at once. Riveting.
As Nancy, the Hicksville masseuse with delusions of grandeur, Jenn Lyon perfectly encapsulates the hunger for admission to the inner circle, the desperate need to ascend to the higher circles, where money and glamour abound. Lyon’s Nancy is quick to leave her husband, the father of her girls, for the prospect of money; she seems genuine and appealing at first, but before long, and especially after her treatment of her rival, she is revealed as a money-hungry opportunist with a 21st Century goal of fame. Lyon immaculately charts Nancy’s desires and failings – her ghastly demolition of Adelaide Clemens’ Essie is horror on a plate.
C.J.Wilson, as Strings’ half-brother Duke, is a breath of fetid down-to-Earth reality. He may have a miserable existence, but it his and he revels in that. With an ashtray of a house, a fishwife and argumentative spawn, Duke represents normality in Strings’ life, the kind of life he thinks he should take on because it is what he thinks his mother would have wanted. Duke does not want to get trapped in Strings’ plans but eventually finds them irresistible, as all modern fame seems to be. Money, fame, attention and animal feed – that comes to sum up Duke’s life. Wilson is first rate as Duke, a perfect sparring partner for Olyphant, their very different energies making for fascinating and bruising encounters.
Strings stumbles across one person who might actually love him and care for him and fulfil his mother’s expectation: Clemens’ Essie. When she first appears, at the funeral home where String and Duke’s mother is laid out for final inspection before burial, Essie is mousy and slightly thrown. She sees Strings for what he is, but despite that, succumbs to his charms. But she will not permit him to ride over her as though she was a welcome mat and she flummoxes him by refusing his ample masculine charms in perpetuity. Clemens makes Essie entirely real, thoroughly decent and, ultimately, the only real woman Strings knows – however briefly. Her brief scene with Nobb’s Jimmy, where he wonders whether Strings is friend or employer, is the grittiest scene of the evening, revealing as it is for all the other major characters in the piece.
Finally, Jonathan Hogan is an absolute marvel as Mitch in the play’s final scene. Old, uncertain and fragile, he squares up to Strings and shows him what reality really is. Olyphant is never better than in this brief encounter, and Hogan skilfully flays the skin off Olyphant’s Strings and then pours salt into the wounds. It’s bracing to witness, every breath is stilted, difficult, dipped in pain. Hogan is terrific in every way.
Hold On To Me Darling is a wonderfully bold, incisive and acutely funny piece of new writing. It holds a mirror up to the celebrity. society of today and finds it more than lacking. It is the ultimate, and complete, response to the Kardashian and T.O.W.I.E. fans of now.
Easily the best new writing so far this season on Broadway.
Do not miss it.