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It Doesn't Take Them Long to Change His Life

Date: Feb 09, 2017

The cast of 'Man From Nebraska' does more with less


The Playbill title page for Man From Nebraska lists its cast alphabetically, with no suggestion of leads positioned above the rest. This despite the fact that Tracy Letts' play focuses on a central character played by Reed Birney, who's fresh off a Tony win for The Humans .

That feels appropriate, however, since the show is ultimately an ensemble piece. Although Birney's role as Ken Carpenter is quite substantial – as is the role of Ken's wife, Nancy (Annette O'Toole) – the show's success is dependent on the briefer performances of the supporting characters he meets on his journey.

A devout, middle-aged Nebraskan, Ken is mired in the mundane. In a nighttime panic, he blurts out that he no longer believes in God and doesn't "understand the stars." Following his local pastor's advice to take a vacation, he jets to London on a quest to regain his compass. On the journey, he engages with people vastly different from himself and questions his foundations.

Originally produced by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2003, the play was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Second Stage Theatre's production, running through March 12, marks its New York debut.

In support of the play's two "leads," director David Cromer has assembled seven supportive actors who skillfully propel the story.

Among them is Heidi Armbruster, who plays the divorced businesswoman Pat Monday, the first person Ken encounters. When developing Pat's character, Armbruster asked herself, "Why does Ken's journey need this person?"

"I'm also a playwright, so that's probably a question I ask as a writer," she explains. "But it helps me to focus if I understand the dramatic need for this character. If I were to remove Pat Monday from the play, the plot would still work. But what would be missing? I see Pat as the gateway drug into the rest of the story.

"That gives me a playpen. It puts boundaries around me. I have this amount of space to work in and these are the events that need to be accomplished. There's freedom in structure. If I understand what the boundaries are, I can fill it with as much of myself as I can."

Tom Bloom – whose character, Bud Todd, vies for Nancy's attention back in Nebraska – shares that passion for concision. "Every person the main characters meet has to be full-fledged," he says. "With limited time, you have to come on with things that are pre-recognizable but without being a cutout.

"For instance, during rehearsal the director asked me to change my walk; he wanted to make me seem more world-weary and needy. I tend to be lanky, bouncy, and energetic, but I suddenly realized that this guy was not that. Once I found that sense of his lower gravity, it was a breakthrough. It felt 'musically' right and also affected the tempo of my lines.

"My job is to recognize what the whole piece looks like and figure out how to fit in without sticking out. Sometimes inexperienced actors step into small stage roles, and you can see that they're doing their 'stuff' and it doesn't fit the play. Getting beyond that develops over time; there's a lot of satisfaction in the skill that involves."

Nana Mensah plays Tamyra, a London bartender who coaxes Ken from his comfort zone to make a meaningful connection. "Tamyra is one part Pied Piper, one part seductress, and one part pragmatist," she says. Laughing, she adds, "And she's a broke artist. In finding my pathway into a character, I definitely connected with the broke artist part. That resonated."

Like Bloom, Mensah also sought to shed the superfluous. "In my early twenties, I'd been that actor who came in with a lot of 'stuff' on top of the words. Over the years, I've gotten more excited about paring it down to its essence rather than coming in with all this armor – just coming in naked, open, and seeing what bubbles up. That's the approach I took with this character.

"But ultimately, I wanted to make it about the text because Tracy is a very precise writer. David brought to our attention that Tracy doesn't say anything he doesn’t mean. That helped us in terms of mining the text. I did create a backstory for my character, but the clues are on the page."

All three actors agree that Letts' artistry has made their jobs easier. Or as Armbruster says, "He's a magician in his ability to use very precise words that hint at an entire life."


Jeff Potter is an arts journalist and musician living in Washington Heights.

TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for 'Man From Nebraska.' Go here to browse our current offers.

Photo: A promotional image for this production, featuring Reed Birney.