The Purple Rose’s Vast Difference marks the second time the theater has remounted an early play of its benefactor, Jeff Daniels–the first time was 2008, when it gave Apartment 3A another whirl. Why do they do this? Daniels is like those quick-sketch artists who chase you down the street in touristy areas, shoving a caricature of yourself in your face. His plays about contemporary society, dashed off in haste and served up fast, are candid, not-half-bad shots of the world we live in. And he knows deeply and instinctively how to write scenes for actors. But so far, at least, he’s no Arthur Miller or Edward Albee: his plays don’t have strong bones that can be picked over a generation later for new meat.
Director Guy Sanville gives Vast Difference some tender attention and smart production values (the play literally opens with smoke and mirrors) and introduces some new male talent to the stage: Daniel Eyde, who’s got a great testosterone-y Robert De Niro thing going on; and Drew Parker, with smoldering bedroom eyes, who is deliciously cast as one of the silliest men in modern history. But nice directorial work only partially disguises the fact that the vast difference most in evidence is the one between 1993, when the play was first performed, and 2013.
George Noonan (David Bendena), a middle-aged man on the verge of a vasectomy, is trying to sort out his rational fears of aging and impotence from his irrational fears of castration, all the while–whoops, here comes 1993–trying to make sense of this crazy world where the gals are doctors and the guys are flight attendants! Were we really getting our knickers in a twist about men serving drinks on planes and women wearing lab coats? I guess we were, because Robert Bly and his early-nineties agenda to reattach men to their primordial masculinity wanders into this play and stays awhile–here he’s called Richard Bergman, played by the aforementioned Drew Parker. With so much of what time blessedly forgot about 1993 baked into the script, it sometimes seemed no more than a puzzling time capsule of a show.
Yet I enjoyed it. Irrelevant as The Vast Difference is, it bubbles and sings. It helps to think of it not as a coherent piece but as a series of short unrelated sketches. Every male who parades his singular set of talents across the stage is stellar, from the rubber-faced David Bendena, who can convincingly play a ten-year-old version of his middle-aged self, to Eyde and Drew Parker (who have multiple roles), to Richard McWilliams’ small-town barber, played with droopy understated charm and wit.
The play ends its run on December 14.