Bus station pedantry
by Sally Mitani
It's tempting to see Guest Artist, written by Jeff Daniels and playing at the Purple Rose through Saturday, March 18, as something Daniels wrote on the set of The Squid and the Whale, in a method-actorish obsession with the character he played in that film. In his recent Golden Globe-nominated role, he plays Bernard Berkman, a pompous academic novelist, who has gradually slid from critical and popular success to no success and is reduced to the pedant's cheapest trick. Finding a captive audience in his son, he ceaselessly lectures the nerdish teenager on the nature of art and anything else that comes to mind.
That icky Oedipal dynamic is at the center of Guest Artist too. A washed-up Manhattan playwright named Joseph Harris, who has been commissioned - for some reason - by Steubenville, Ohio, to write a play, shows up without the play. But he holds a young local playwright in thrall for a night, drunkenly pontificating on the function of art in a world that doesn't properly appreciate it.
Played by Grant R. Krause, Harris bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Jeff Daniels as Bernard Berkman, if you can imagine Berkman a few decades more aged and embittered, so perhaps I can be forgiven for belaboring the similarities in the two roles. The press packet that accompanied my ticket described this play as Daniels's "most autobiographical work yet." After trying and failing to see Daniels as a washed-up alcoholic reduced to giving impromptu lectures in small-town bus stations, this is the autobiographical connection I drew: that Daniels couldn't let Berkman - a terrific and complex role - go, so he wrote him a second act.
The problem with Guest Artist is that Joseph Harris, or Bernard Berkman, or whoever he is, is so irritating that it's hard to listen to anything he says even if he's right. He's a man in love with his own words and his own tragic sensitivities, and in love
with the effect he has on young, impressionable artists. His pedantic hectoring of an almost unbelievably naive man comes off as a kind of artistic pederasty.
Far fresher and more enjoyable is the "ticket man" (Randall Godwin), who sits behind the cage of the wonderful art deco bus station (Bartley H. Bauer's set design), braying all his lines into the PA - official boarding announcements, unofficial asides about his wife, or sub rosa liquor transactions, all given the same weighty delivery, oblivious to the life-or-death debate on the Nature of Art going on ten feet away from him. This is the memorable character, not Harris. He's also the character who wasn't invented by the playwright alone but by the alchemy of ensemble theater, something Harris, for all his impassioned speechifying about the meaning of theater, seems never to have heard of. Daniels, who has a full-time career as an actor and a part-time career as a philanthropist and administrator, is also quite a good and serious playwright, but this isn't one of his more memorable contributions.
[Review published March 2006]