Encore Michigan

Jeff Daniels’ “Casting Session” premieres at Purple Rose

Review September 26, 2015 David Kiley

Jeff Daniels’ new play at The Purple Rose Theatre, Casting Session, reminds me of an obnoxious conversation I observed once between a teacher and a wealthy executive who could not understand why a seemingly bright woman in her mid 30’s would choose to teach kids all day for not-great pay instead of going into business. “Because my heart won’t let me do anything else,” was her excellent answer.

David Daoust (left) and Tom Whalen (right) in Jeff Daniels' Casting Session

David Daoust (left) and Tom Whalen (right) in Jeff Daniels’ Casting Session

In this case, there are three people long on heart for the theater even if they are short on actual talent. The story, which takes about an hour to perform, involves two actors clearly scraping their stomachs on the trash-filled floor of the theatre world and a casting director working for an eccentric director who likes to do his thinking and telephone calling on the toilet.

Frank (Tom Whalen) is a nervous, shaky actor who we learn is fresh off a disastrous Broadway debut in a bit part in which he froze when called upon to deliver his only line of the play, “Dinner is served.” The New York Times reviewer spent a few paragraphs on Frank’s spectacle as “Butler #2,” which lasted a few minutes whilst he got prompts from the stage manager heard by the audience in the awkward silence of the theatre. He ultimately delivered the line after two minutes when a cast member handed him a napkin with the line written on it.

It seems a miracle that Frank has been sent on any audition with a casting director, Fiona, (Erika Matchie Thiede) just two weeks after the well-publicized debacle, let alone one for a play in which the casting director is expecting Dustin Hoffman and Christopher Plummer to show up and read. He is joined in the casting session by another actor, Ron (David Daoust), who it turns out is a kind of nemesis of Frank’s, a guy about the same age who Frank has been bumping into at auditions for almost 40 years.

I’m leaving out some of the plot, and the climax, so as not to spoil it for future audience members. The strength of the short play, directed by Guy Sanville, is the often sharp, funny dialogue among the three, especially delivered by Ms. Thiede who, making her Purple Rose debut following an apprenticeship, manages to segue from disinterested, harsh New York casting director who is a mother-cat to the actor mice to a concerned, sensitive, if manic, artist herself scraping her stomach on the same debris-cluttered floor of Manhattan’s Hudson River as the men. While Daniels, an award winning actor in film and now television, has enjoyed success, fame and respect since the 1980s, his portrayals of the characters is knowing. I imagine he still runs into plenty of people clinging to their profession like cats on a screen door.

Daoust’s Ron has spot-on delivery of the Daniels-penned dialogue. As in other plays we have seen him in (he is a resident artist at Purple Rose), Daoust brings truth to his roles, large and small, nasty and sympathetic. His comedic pacing and timing is a thing to watch. Tom Whalen makes us feel pity for Frank, even when he is calling his nine-year old nephew who is responsible for his un-updated website a “little criminal,” and ultimately root for him to get somewhere…anywhere. We can even relate to his “stage-fright,” and realize that he didn’t forget his line. He just didn’t want his tiny Broadway moment to be over so quickly.

The set design by Bartley H. Bauer hardly stars, but it is not supposed to. The worn, shabby casting office, has rummage sale furniture, as it should, with a “casting couch” peppered with stains of hair product, coffee and, for some reason we hear, marmalade. The Acting for Idiots book protruding from under a chair was a good touch for those who noticed it. Costuming by Shelby Newport, likewise, was under-stated. After all, two actors and a casting director in present day are going to look like most of the people in the audience. But the French-tied scarf around Frank’s neck was a thoughtful touch for his character who seems to be reaching for oxygen throughout every hour of his daily life.

Part way through the play, I wondered how the story was going to be sustained for an hour and a half. No worries, it was resolved in an hour. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But for an ultimately satisfying evening at the theatre, I wonder if pairing the play with another Daniels one-act play might feel more like a meal for $38? Oh well, perhaps its best not to value theatre by the pound.

Casting session is a brief, biting, funny look at the business of Broadway through the hearts of three people who can’t stop lurching toward a spotlight or putting themselves “out there” time after time, year after year, decade after decade, because their hearts, and souls, won’t let them do anything else.

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Photos by Sean Carter Photography