Jeff Daniels is the author of fifteen plays, his latest–The Meaning of Almost Everything–now premiering at the Purple Rose. As the last sentence of his program bio wryly notes, “He also acts.” But this also-acting is a possible clue to the scattershot nature of his plays. As a writer, he seems to enjoy taking on new and different roles, and, rather than cultivating a unique voice, he seems to write as a way of processing whatever’s swirling around in his brain. Dumb and Dumber may have begat his bawdy broad comedy Escanaba in Da Moonlight. He wrote Guest Artist in the wake of The Squid and the Whale, both about writing careers that soared then fizzled. I think I can find other matches too between an acting role and a play he’s written, but my point is that Daniels writes about something he’s thinking about, then he moves on.
The Meaning of Almost Everything suggests that lately Daniels has been rummaging around inside that blandly handsome cranium of his looking for his inner Beckett, and if what he found was more Beckett-meets-Seinfeld-meets-Three Stooges-meets-acting classes, well, I’ll say amen to that. The spare, baffling ambiguity of mid-twentieth-century theatre of the absurd is a river that probably can’t be stepped in twice. The Meaning of Almost Everything is more like wandering around in Jeff Daniels’ brain as he thinks about theatre of the absurd, and assorted other things poke their way in.
The play shamelessly riffs off Waiting for Godot: two characters named A and B prowl around a bare set, interrogating each other in sometimes nonsensical sentences, archly delivered. A and B may be two parts of one brain: yin/yang, left brain/right brain, id/superego–pick your favorite dichotomy. They debate a life lived in a safe but stifling internal world versus one lived in the scary, unpredictable world outside the self. The dialogue can be pretty heavy going, though it is a one-act play (seventy minutes long), a form that lends itself to drier, more philosophical terrain than the traditional two or three acts with intermission. Still, I think Actor B, Michael Brian Ogden, could have taken a lighter route; he attacks the role with an exhausting weightiness, as if scouts from the Royal Shakespeare Company were in the audience.
Overlaying this existential skeleton, Daniels (or maybe this is director Guy Sanville’s contribution) has the characters run through a series of exercises that make up the actor’s basic toolkit. Mime, stage combat, and improv-with-audience all put in an appearance. But wait, there’s more. What’s the theme to Chariots of Fire doing here? And is the strobe light an homage to silent movies? And from my notes: “Did Daniels turn Buddhist? Wait, Christian? No, Buddhist. Is that Zorba the Greek?”
All told, though? I’m impressed. If Daniels’ writing output is unfocused, and this play in particular seems an unedited outpouring of what’s in his brain, it’s a surprisingly well-stocked brain.
The production runs through March 9.