In the wake of his mother’s death, country superstar Strings McCrane (Timthoy Olyphant) is a colossal wreck. He can’t play the guitar without crying. He can’t converse without crying. He withdraws from his engagement to a fellow country star to be with a hotel masseuse named Nancy (Jenn Lyon), drops Nancy after falling for his cousin Essie (Adelaide Clemens) at his mother’s funeral, then picks up Nancy again after she convinces him his misdeeds could sway the moral compass of the entire country. Amid all this romantic turmoil, Strings decides to buck the limelight, move home and work at the local feed store in an attempt to shed the ghost of his late mother’s disapproval.
Strings so frequently burdens everyone around him with his personal anguish, one wonders if he ever reserves any of it for his music. Anyone in his immediate radius is likely to be subject to a mournful monologue peppered with wide-eyed incredulity at the awesome importance of his own existence. Mr. Olyphant is something of an old hand at playing wayward, emotionally stunted Southern men, and he does not disappoint here. The ample charisma he displays on screen translates well to the theater and his understated version of needy self-obsession saves Strings from being unbearable, and the other actors provide a amusing range of reactions to his steady stream of sorrow. The best of them is Ms. Lyon, who does an excellent job of playing lover, surrogate mother, and foil to Mr. Olyphant. She is funny from the moment she enters and she flawlessly manages the transition from sympathetic to sinister to sympathetic again.
Country music often vacillates between heartbreak and machismo. One of the best aspects of Hold on to Me Darling is how heavily it revels in heartbreak’s less masculine moments. Strings and his hair-trigger tears take some of the swagger out of the genre without becoming outright parody. It is a very funny and occasionally melancholy exploration of the casualties that emerge from one person’s reckless quest for authenticity and redemption.
Hold on to Me Darling runs through April 17th at the Linda Gross Theater. 336 W. 20th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 45 minutes. One intermission.