The little press release that went out in advance of Mosaic Theatre's new production, Guest Artist, was uncharacteristically misleading. It said: "In his most autobiographical work yet, Jeff Daniels explores the glory of theater, hero worship and the nature of artistic risk in a gentle and poignant comedy about a burned-out playwright who visits a small town theater company that has commissioned what may be his last play."
What associations do those words conjure? An old playwright peering wistfully out a window onto some archetypal Main Street, USA, watching a soda jerk in a pharmacy across the street whip up egg creams for young boys pounding baseballs into baseball mitts? You expect something sweet and sad and Saturday Evening Post-style American.
But Guest Artist takes place in a Greyhound station in Steubenville, Ohio, where a once-great and now hopelessly-besotted playwright named Joseph Harris (John Felix) has just arrived from New York. He's supposed to get a ride to his hotel from Kenneth Waters (Antonio Amadeo), a lackey and would-be playwright from the local theater (the Dean Martin Repertory Company) that's commissioned Harris' new work. But Harris claims not to have any new work, and the men never get out of the station. What should be a straightforward retrieval job turns into a two-act imbroglio that is almost totally devoid of action — and which is, nevertheless, a lot more interesting than you'd expect.
There's complexity here; you can't easily reduce the play to a one-sentence synopsis. So forgive the PR people their little misdirection. There are quite a few funny moments, from Felix's Harris and Amadeo's Waters, and many more from Erik Fabregat (as the aggressively deadpan bus station attendant), but this is mostly a thinking-listening-feeling kind of play. That's always a hard sell, doubly so when it comes from a guy like Jeff Daniels, who's so famous as a hyper-versatile film actor (Squid & The Whale, Dumb & Dumber) that you don't quite believe he can pull off penning an hour and a half of compelling dialogue. Watch one of his plays, though, and you're pretty much sold.
For whatever reason, it's often the amateurs who have the balls to tackle the Really Big Questions. Professional poets don't usually write explicitly about, say, the meaning of life, because they went through their broad-stroke philosophical ejaculation phase in senior year of high school. It's only weekend poets who still muck around with that stuff, and Jeff Daniels is kind of a weekend playwright. Even though he's written at least 11 plays, you've got to figure a guy who's starred in an average of two films a year for the last decade and a half probably can't get as much writing time as he'd like. So he's not bored with the Really Big Questions, and he hasn't given them up as unanswerable. Combine Daniels' willingness to probe with some very obvious literary talent, as well as a director, Richard Jay Simon, who is at least as devoid of cynicism as Daniels himself, and three of South Florida's most fun actors, and you've got a pretty rewarding night at the theater.
In the middle of the night at the Steubenville Greyhound, Harris has decided to go back to New York with his big literary tail between his stubby literary legs, and Waters has to keep him from doing so. If he can't, he'll probably lose his position at his theater company (totally unrealistic, but whatev). Anyway, he doesn't want Harris to go. Harris is his hero. So they argue. John Felix's Harris is a very typical curmudgeonly-artist-sage type of character, shedding imperious philosophy and embittered wit with every line — and this, rather than make us groan at such an old trope, turns quickly into a real source of pleasure. Because John Felix is just a fine actor, you actually find yourself looking forward to the moments when Harris, stomping around the station and braying his disgust at the world, tells the quivering, sputtering Waters that an "artist never apologizes" or that life is a "terrifying apprenticeship for death!"
This death in Guest Artist, though, seems to be more the death of feeling than the death of the body — Harris' Steubenville commission won't be his last play because the guy's dying (as the press release might have you believe), but because Harris fears he's losing his emotions and that everybody else is too. That's another old trope, but again, Daniels and his spokesman, Felix, give it legs. When Harris drunkenly exhorts Waters to take off his clothes and join him in jumping up and down on the station's benches, screaming "I am a playwright and this is my art!" you get the point. Daniels is saying that art's got to be the product of bravery, that art is powerful and private and violent, and you've got to cling to it with all the insouciance and crazy valor of a bull rider clutching his rope. One can and should doubt whether penning a play about two men discussing the American theater in a bus station requires such valor, but I don't think Daniels has been hoist on his own petard. Writing this thing while coming off the monumentally depressing Squid & The Whale, in which he played a formerly-successful-and-now-creatively-impotent literary novelist, he may have just been writing in character.
Or maybe Guest Artist is autobiographical, not because Daniels fancies himself a wise old man like Harris, but because he still feels like Kenneth Waters: aware that great work is out there, that the possibility of beautiful and true art is as real and alive as it ever was, and still looking for a handhold. For all Harris's talk about art needing to be passionate and vulnerable and scary, for most of Guest Artist, it's Antonio Amadeo who is all of those things. It's in his portrayal — its insecurity, its inescapable honesty and lack of pretense, the naked excitement and terror that push him around the stage — that Guest Artist finds the emotion it lionizes. Daniels probably couldn't write the Great American Play, but he sure can start a conversation about what it might look like. As conversations go, it's a good one. You'll be glad you had it.