A polar bear named desire
by Sally Mitani
From the December, 2008 issue
Jeff Daniels is author of about a dozen plays, most of which have been produced at his Purple Rose Theatre. And if he ever turns up on one of those "This I Believe" spots on NPR, I think I know what he'll say: he believes in love. But his plays aren't about the kind that your mom and the eHarmony guy are always pushing-safe, companionable love that grows steadily out of matched goals and personality traits. He's interested in the other love-powerful, inexplicable passion based on the deep, magical voodoo between the sexes.
Feverish, hormonal love and the stagecraft that goes with it seem to be the theme this year at Purple Rose. The season kicks off with Apartment 3A, a remounted production of the 1996 Daniels play. It runs until Christmas; then January brings Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. One comedy, one tragedy, both are stories of fragile, delusional women and the men who tear their clothes off them, more or less right onstage. (It's a little harder to tell if the third and fourth plays in the Rose's season will follow this trajectory since they're world premieres and unknown quantities, but their early blurbs suggest that they too explore the love-lust boundary.)
Streetcar takes a famously jaundiced view of women who trust in the kindness of strangers, especially women who are down on their luck. Apartment 3A, on the other hand, finds wonder and redemption in the very forces that suck the life out of Streetcar's Blanche and Stella. At the opening of Apartment 3A, Annie, a public-television producer, has just rented the apartment of the play's title to slit her wrists in. A few days later, as the play ends, she has fallen in love twice and been splendidly ravished onstage by someone pretending to be a polar bear. She's none the worse for it. In fact, she drinks in these events as if they were a marvelous new health tonic, and skips off
to a new, rejuvenated life.
Some unimportant parts of Apartment 3A's script have become subtly dated in its twelve-year sleep-"then and now" is the program's pert dodge from committing to one time or another. The costumer sidestepped the issue too, choosing to date the play in some mythical era in which public-TV employees wore five-inch candy-apple-red heels to work. But eventually the characters bump into anachronisms. Annie seems more or less contemporary until she has a madly sarcastic on-camera breakdown while shilling for her TV station, a much-stolen plot device from the 1976 movie Network that must have seemed tired even ten years ago and now seems farcical. Another piece of the script has Annie darkly ruminating on terrorist threats, and it turns out she means Oklahoma City.
Those musty oddities are unrelated to Apartment 3A's real story. Daniels's subject is sex, seduction, and delusion, a grand trio in his scripts. It's a well-chosen appetizer for Tennessee Williams's more baleful treatment of the same.
Apartment 3A continues its run through Saturday, December 20.
[Originally published in December, 2008.]
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