There’s something deeply satisfying about the Purple Rose Theatre Company launching its 25th season with the world-premiere of a play written by its founder, Jeff Daniels, about the soul-crushing, intoxicating and addictive experience of professional acting. Jeff Daniels’ award-winning work as an actor spans stage, TV and film. He has starred in heavy dramas, light romances, zany comedies and historical films. He’s had such amazing roles that it’s hard to imagine he’s ever been denied a part he wanted. Even so, one doesn’t become a highly-regarded actor without suffering through countless auditions and related humiliations. And as the founder of the Purple Rose Theatre, we know Daniels has been on both sides of the audition experience. So when he dons his playwright’s cap to tell a story about two aging actors competing for a juicy role, we can be sure his source material is golden. What’s surprising, or perhaps gratifying, is that this play is hilarious without requiring us to suspend our disbelief. It is funny precisely because it rings so true.
The play opens as Frank (Tom Whalen) paces in the outer office of a Manhattan casting agent; he’s practicing his scant lines and struggling to remember them. They aren’t difficult – most of the audience has already memorized the part Frank is literally trying to beat into his brain. We laugh, but we quickly begin to empathize with this man. He clearly takes his craft seriously, so why does he seem so desperate? And what is the deal with his crippling memory block?
Enter the casting agent Fiona (Erika Matchie Thiede) who explains (between calls from a desperate agent) that the brilliant but tyrannical director who Frank must audition for is running behind. Frank begs for a full script so he can work out his motivation, his backstory, and an approach to the character. But all he gets from Fiona is a “talk to the hand” sign as she juggles calls.
Just as Frank seems ready to self-destruct, his nemesis shows up in the form of Ron (David Daoust) – the competing actor Frank blames for every lost role, theatrical disappointment and act of bad karma. Ron is Frank’s polar opposite – confident, laid back and full of bravura. The harder Frank struggles, the more Ron makes it look easy.
After much name dropping and career jousting, it becomes clear that the two men will do anything to get the part. And as Fiona stalls for time (the director is stuck on a call with Spielberg) she begins to engage the actors to see who might best fill the role. As the competition heats up (Frank and Ron both score direct hits that leave them visibly shaken) Fiona seems increasingly interested in the antagonistic relationship the men have harbored for 30 years.
That’s the set up. Ultimately, it’s revealed that these three people shared a moment – a theatre experience – that brings an entirely new context to the casting session. To say more would be to give away the little plot twists that Daniels is so good at. Ultimately, it’s not even the plot that makes this play such a crowd-pleaser. “Casting Session” has a charm beyond its impressively high laughs-per-minute ratio. It’s an intelligent play – with minimal physical comedy, but plenty of sharply crafted banter. And it has wonderfully drawn characters that we like in spite of, or perhaps because of, their obvious foibles.
The hand of director Guy Sanville is clearly evident in this production. It’s as if the actors are performing a sort of intellectual ballet that makes the choreography seem effortless. The show runs a brisk 90 minutes, the pacing is perfect, and when you leave the theatre you are a happier person. The opening-night audience gave “Casting Session” a standing ovation and it was well earned.
Design for this production includes set by Bartley H. Bauer, properties by Danna Segrest, costumes by Shelby Newport, lighting by Dana L. White, sound by Angie Kane Ferrante, and stage management by Angie Kane Ferrante.
“Casting Session” runs at The Purple Rose Theatre Company through Saturday, December 19, 2015. Performances for the duration of the run are Wednesdays at 3 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Ticket reservations can be made by calling the Box Office at (734) 433-7673 or securing them online at the PRTC website. The Purple Rose Theatre is located at 137 Park Street in Chelsea.
Underwriting support for the season comes from The Ford Motor Company Fund, The Hamp Family Fund, and the Matilda R. Wilson Fund. Media Sponsors include Michigan Radio, ChelseaMich.com, Detroit Performs, and Applied Storytelling.