21 June 2006

We've watched Jeff Daniels use the Purple Rose Theatre Company as a personal launching pad for his career as a playwright for years and accepted this as the price of theatre in Chelsea. We should have seen it, instead, as practice, because Daniels has finally gotten it right.

He has gotten close before. Escanaba in da Moonlight, Norma and Wanda, and Across the Way were all good in more ways than not. But Guest Artist is not just a funny play—something we expect, because Daniels does comedy well. It is not just a well-crafted play, nor interesting as a concept. Each of these plays showed an artist coming to grasp with voice, concept, and craft. With Guest Artist, Daniels has matured. His craft is evident in the plotting and pacing, the use of repetition and so many other tricks writers use to reinforce message, surprise, and entertain. His love of the art for its own sake has never been more apparent, nor his idea of art's, and the artist's, role.

Yet what makes this an important play is not its technical competency—this is only a necessary foundation, and building it is a skill now thoroughly mastered. What makes it important, even worth all those years of practice, is in both what it says and how it is said.

'How' first. The piece is set in a bus station in Steubenville, Ohio, where a young theatre apprentice is to meet Jim Harris, a playwright commissioned to provide the local troupe's next offering. The relationship that develops between the two seems to be based on Daniels' own with Lanford Wilson, adding an emotional depth to the work. The two never leave the bus station (read it as Sartre's hell), using it instead as a platform for the power struggle that is Guest Artist's 'what'.

Harris, as noted above, owes the Steubenville Players a new play, and has come to be part of its production. He doesn't want to deliver. This is where the years of practice come into play: the construction of this interplay is flawless, almost effortless, leaving us with a pair of perfectly realized characters in an entirely believable situation.

This combination, in turn, drives the 'what'—and allows Guest Artist to become important. This is not a philosophical vehical, but Harris lets Daniels share his views on the playwright's role, theatre's role, and the writing process in contemporary society. The political, emotional, and artistic are not 'subjects' or 'themes', but passionately held beliefs, fears, and personal insights from Harris and the apprentice as they struggle to make sense of themselves, their world, and their work. Here, at last, Daniels has moved from using the theatre as springboard, metaphor, or representation to presenting theatre as life, and in so doing announces himself as an important new playwright, even if he isn't really new.


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