If you want your heart and soul tested, visit Steubenville, Ohio. That's where Jeff Daniels has set his newest play Guest Artist, in which two men a jaded, alcoholic Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and his young apprentice challenge each other to a duel of wit and will.
The time is the present and the setting is a 1930s-style bus terminal, with curving art moderne lines exquisitely designed by Purple Rose's Bartley H. Bauer. When the play opens, a couple of men are sleeping on benches; the first to rise is youthful Kenneth Waters, played by actor Patrick Michael Kenney. He initiates a frenzied conversation with the ticket seller, played by the inimitable Randall Godwin.
Waters wants to know if he slept through the arrival of the bus carrying playwright Joseph Harris (actor Grant R. Krause). He has been sent by the playhouse's artistic director to pick up the writer, chauffeur him to a hotel and then to the Dean Martin Playhouse, where Harris is set to begin working on the production of his first script in a decade.
For regulars at Purple Rose Theatre, where actor Jeff Daniels is the executive director, this plotline has the ring of truth actually, more like the gong of recognition. Pulitzer Prize-winner Lanford Wilson came to Purple Rose in 1998 and 2000 to present the world premieres of two of his plays. Wilson, like Harris in Guest Artist, was a drinker who is somewhat difficult to work with. And yet, in the opinion of many, he's also a genius.
It's certainly possible that the script for Daniels' play is generated by actual events involving Wilson. The character of Harris is all wit, bon mots and cruel observation. The young Waters idolizes Harris in an adolescent, sycophantic way, so together they're like the odd couple of Steubenville.
The dramatic clash the thrill ride begins when Harris insists on having a drink before he goes anywhere, but Waters is under strict orders not to let the wild man anywhere near a bottle. And hell hath no fury like a drunkard without a glass. That's when negotiations begin: Will Harris be kind enough to look over the budding writer's script, a play called ouch The Great American Play. Or, sans drink, will Harris hop back onto the bus? Will Waters buy him that drink?
By the end of Act 1, Harris has agreed to, at the very least, read the apprentice's play, before boarding. In Act 2, the Pulitzer winner faces his demons, thanks to the young admirer. This is when the play's comedy melts away, and what's left is tragedy.
Guy Sanville directs this production with his usual brio. And in what is essentially a two-character play, it's good that Godwin, as the ticket seller, is there for comic relief. He takes his time setting up his laughs, and scores every time. As playwright Harris, Krause is a superb madman, equal parts off-the-wall and angry, he gives a fine, nuanced performance. But Patrick Michael Kenney, as Waters, is just under the mark in Act 1; he is supposed to be tentative and fumbling but comes across more as inhibited and a bit nervous. In Act 2, he opens up and is no longer just a pretty face resembling television's Neil Patrick Harris.
The only fault in this polished and compelling production is that both Kenney and Krause speak occasionally at a near-whisper. Even in the second row, some lines never reach the audience. Dynamics of speech are wonderful in performances, but while the highs are wonderful here, the lows are not. And to be sure, we want to hear every word of this Daniels play.
8 p.m., Wednesdays-Saturdays, with additional shows at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and 3 p.m. on Sundays, through March 18, at the Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St. in Chelsea; 734-433-7673. Tickets $25-$35.Michael H. Margolin wirtes about theater and the performing arts for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]