Credit: Doug Hamilton

Hold On To Me Darling

In description alone, Hold On To Me Darling, a new play by Kenneth Lonergan (This Is Our Youth), sounds like a bummer: Country & western star Strings McCrane returns to his hometown in Tennessee after his mother’s death, distraught and determined to leave the world of celebrity for a more meaningful one back home. But with Timothy Olyphant (Justified) anchoring a pitch-perfect cast, and with Lonergan’s absolutely uproarious script, it’s the farthest thing from tragedy.

Clarence “Strings” McCraine (Olyphant) is, as his brother Duke (C.J. Wilson) tells us, “the third biggest crossover star in the history of country music.” As is the Hollywood way, Strings is blissfully unaware of his own self-absorption, and his fawning assistant, Jimmy (a hilariously eager Keith Nobbs) doesn’t do much to help his case. “I’m-a cut myself for sayin’ that. I’m-a cut myself!” Jimmy cries after carelessly suggesting Strings stay at his late mother’s now-empty house.

Before long, Strings takes up with his massage therapist, Nancy (Jenn Lyon), a sweet Southern lady who skillfully camouflages her shrewd, calculating side with maternal “Honeys” and “Darlings.” “I don’t know anything about this show business. I was raised with dogs and chickens!” she constantly reminds everyone around her — a refrain that comes back in a quite amusing scene toward the play’s end.

While Nancy’s sinking her claws into Strings, his eye wanders to his second cousin twice removed, a sweet widow named Essie (Rectify’s Adelaide Clemens) — it’s not entirely clear how uncomfortable we’re supposed to feel about this tryst, but the fact that she’s usually called “Cousin Essie” is a pretty good hint. Between his lady troubles and his new plan to give up the glitter of music and movies to buy and run the local feed store with his half-brother Duke, Strings is in over his head, following his impulses wherever they may yank him.

Olyphant exudes palpable charisma: It’s not hard to understand how people could be enraptured by Strings even while rolling their eyes at him. Lyon’s sly Nancy is particularly skilled at putting him in his place while still being completely obsessed: “I know you’re sayin’ to yourself, ‘Why me? Why am I responsible? I’m not the President, or a spiritual leader, or even a professional athlete. I’m just a country & western singer with the most beautiful baritone voice in the world,'” she tells him during one impassioned lecture.

Act I carries the audience on such a grand wave of laughter that the momentum slips a little during a slightly too long Act II — and the ending feels a bit anticlimactic, if only because it was inevitable. But the only real downside of this utterly delightful show is that C.J. Wilson’s Duke doesn’t have enough stage time: He’s both a gruff, beer-swilling stereotype and a surprisingly fresh take on the Southern man, going off on well-informed tangents about space exploration and running verbal laps around his superstar kid brother. And if you’re still not convinced to check out Hold On To Me Darling? Olyphant has a lengthy scene in a tiny pair of briefs. A-

Hold On To Me Darling
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