We’ve heard it said that a little friendly competition never hurt anyone, but what if that competition extended over decades and found you continually vying against the same person for a chance at fame and fulfillment?
In Casting Session, Jeff Daniels’s new play at the Purple Rose, the resulting rivalry is anything but friendly. Frank (Tom Whalen) and Ron (David Daoust) are graying actors whose egos far exceed their talents. Thirty years of auditioning for the same bit parts has stoked a feud in which they are archrivals for thespian mediocrity. When they find themselves yet again trying out for the same role, their mutual dislike and jealousy, compounded by their own insecurities, threaten to engulf them in spasms of anxiety, delusion, and narcissism.
All this would be quite sad if they weren’t so funny. A loud, propulsive, and fast-paced comedy, Casting Session pits these two blustering characters against each other in a bout of playful absurdity.
Directed by Guy Sanville, Casting Session is set entirely in a New York City casting office decorated with furniture that, unlike Frank and Ron, has seen better days. While waiting to audition, Frank and Ron trade barbs, each belittling each other’s abilities and attempting to convince him to abandon the audition. They also can’t help gloating over past roles: Ron was James Tyrone, Sr. in Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night (performed on a cruise ship). Frank appeared in a laundry detergent commercial as a character with hard-to-clean boxer shorts. Ron quickly lands a low blow, bringing up Frank’s recent on-stage humiliation, much lampooned by New York theater critics, in which Frank, cast as Butler #2 in a Broadway play, mutely stood transfixed for minutes when it came time to deliver his one line, “Dinner is served.”
Both Whalen and Daoust convincingly embody their characters’ faults. Whalen transforms Frank into a neurotic mess of a man. Daoust, as Ron, swaggers and smirks, filling the tiny casting office with his braggadocio. The dialogue is quick and sharp, and both actors deliver it with dizzying precision. As characters, both Frank and Ron serve two purposes: first, as dramatic foils to each other, and second, as broad parodies of actors. While amusing to watch, their exaggerated personalities leave little room for nuance, which made them seem more like stock middling actors rather than desperate individuals still hoping against hope to make it.
Casting Session also stars Erika Matchie Thiede as Fiona, a young, spirited director’s assistant who oversees the audition schedule. At first, she punctuates Frank and Ron’s quarreling with announcements and messages from the director, but as the play continues her role becomes more pivotal. Fiona, it turns out, holds the key to both Frank and Ron’s futures.
The play runs through December 19.