Hold On to Me Darling

 

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by Brian Scott Lipton

 

A nearly two-decade absence from the New York stage has done nothing to lessen the considerable chops of Timothy Olyphant. Indeed, his time in Hollywood (where he’s earned fame as the star of both TV’s Justified and Deadwood) has probably helped give this handsome actor some valuable insight to playing the extremely narcissistic country-and-western superstar Strings McCrane in Kenneth Lonergan’s often uproarious comedy Hold on to Me Darling, now in its debut at the Atlantic Theater Company.

 

Admittedly, Strings (real name Clarence) is as self-indulgent as Lonergan’s overlong, shaggy-dog story (clocking in at nearly three hours), occasionally making you wonder how much longer you can hold on during Hold on to Me Darling. But Olyphant’s sheer magnetism practically draws you to him, no matter how badly Strings behaves; and the knowledge that Lonergan might unleash a priceless comic line at any moment (many of which belong emblazoned on t-shirts), or that Olyphant might disrobe again (oh my, what great big abs you have!) is likely to keep you glued to your seats.

 

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So should the perfectly-calibrated performances that director Neil Pepe has elicited from his supporting players, each a key element (along with Walt Spangler’s cleverly rotating sets) to the production’s success. The play opens on the morning of Strings’ mother’s death, an event that he claims has made him question his own view of the world. Lonergan ultimately unveils how strongly Strings may have been affected by this pivotal event (along with one even more major upheaval in his life), yet he never lets us forget that the larger truth is Strings really has little in the way of feelings for others. He’s a man of little brains and large impulses, so cossetted from the realities of the outside world that it barely exists.

Ultimately, his unthinking behavior affects, in various degrees, his personal assistant Jimmy (the wonderful Keith Nobbs), who idolizes Strings in ways that are probably a tad unhealthy and possibly homoerotic; his unhappily married and less-happily employed older brother Duke (C.J. Wilson, maximizing every second he’s on stage); Nancy (an excellent Jenn Lyon), the seemingly sweet-natured massage therapist who works her way quickly into Strings’ life; and, most especially, Essie (a touching Adelaide Clemens), his recently widowed cousin with whom he reconnects—in more ways than one—when he returns to Texas for his mother’s funeral.

 

Despite the play’s entertainment-world setting (Strings is also in the midst of filming a big-budget, set-in-outer-space movie), Lonergan isn’t overly interested in the kind of Hollywood satire Atlantic founder David Mamet revels in. What we have here is comedy-as-character study. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk, but Olyphant has the sure footing that allows him to never take a misstep.

 

 

Hold On To Me Darling. Through Sunday, April 3 at the Atlantic Theater’s Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). Call 866-811-4111 for tickets. www.atlantictheater.org

 

Photos by Doug Hamilton

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