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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Guest Artist Examines the Courage
Required for Great Art

Also see Bob's review of Letting Go

Guest Artist
(clockwise, from top)
Al Mohrmann, Anthony Blaha and Larry Pine

As Guest Artist begins, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Joseph Harris has journeyed by bus from New York to Steubenville, Ohio. Harris is an alcoholic who hasn't written a new play in ten years. However, he is now bringing to Steubenville a new play which has been commissioned by a local theatre. There to pick him up is Kenneth Waters, an incipient young playwright who is an intern with the commissioning Dean Martin Repertory Theatre. Kenneth idolizes Harris and has been inspired to write plays by Harris' work. Also present is the depot ticket seller, a Kafka quoting intellectual who has found refuge from the vicissitudes of his own life in a ticket cage in the overnight near silence of a bus depot.

Over the course of the overnight, Harris goes from displaying the behavior of a surly, monstrously hurtful alcoholic to laying bare the tortured soul of a frightened impotent artist who shares the pain behind his art with a callow but well meaning neophyte. In reaching out to one another, both men find hope. In true short story fashion, there is a pleasing twist ending.

The author is the popular actor Jeff Daniels. Daniels' dialogue, ideas and depth of characterization are superb. His fictional playwright speaks of his belief that a writer must share his voice and beliefs, confronting audiences with truths and insights that they may not find comfortable or want to hear. Yet Harris is fearful of suffering the opprobrium of critics and audiences if he does so.

Guest Artist is set post 9/11, and the reaction of playwright Harris to having experienced that tragedy is provided as the issue about which Harris is most conflicted about portraying.

The well-seasoned Larry Pine is outstanding as the alcoholic Harris. Pine has a painfully haunted quality which draws our sympathy, even in Harris' most cruel and self-destructive behavior. As he becomes more engaged with the young Kenneth and reveals truths about ourselves to the youth and to us by laying bare his soul, his transitions are smooth, subtle and always believable. Pine is blessed with a compelling, sonorous voice which serves him well as he shares the words and wisdom provided by author Daniels.

Anthony Blaha as Kenneth conveys the naïve sincerity (and insincerity) of a well-intended, artistically inclined young scion not yet ready to do without the cushion provided by his wealthy family. His night with the troubled Harris is clearly an important first step on his road to maturity. Al Mohrmann aptly does a remarkably funny, over the top specialty turn as the multi-faceted ticket agent. The role is written in broad, short strokes, yet provides the basis to allow the audience to contemplate the kind of disappointing life which has locked him into that ticket booth.

Director James Glossman has captured the rhythms of Daniels' story and characters. His superb casting is the cornerstone of this production. The realistic, detailed scenic design is the work of R. Michael Miller.

12 Miles West had expended considerable resources and effort on remodeling its former facility in Bloomfield when its landlord withdrew an offer to sell it to the theatre for an already agreed upon price. This situation forced 12 Miles West to opt out of it, and it is producing its current season as a guest of Madison's Playwrights Theatre Company. Soldiering on at its third theater in five years, this small valuable company continues to demonstrate its devotion to the arts and the New Jersey theatre audience. Under these difficult circumstances, its powerful and insightful production of Guest Artist, a tribute to the fortitude and courage which the pursuit of true art requires, has particular resonance.

It is more a vignette than a fully rounded play and would likely work better if played without an intermission. The contrivances required to keep its protagonists together overnight in an Ohio bus depot strain credulity. However, Guest Artist by Jeff Daniels is thought provoking and involving. It brings into sharp and convincing focus the psychic traumas which almost inevitably confront serious writers.

Guest Artist continues performances (Thurs.-Sat. 8 pm/ Sun. 3 pm (no perf. 3/23) through March 30, 2008 at the 12 Miles West Theatre in residence at Playwrights Theatre, 33 Green Village Road, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-259-9187; online: www.12MilesWest.org.

Guest Artist by Jeff Daniels; directed by James Glossman

Cast
Kenneth Waters………Anthony Blaha
Joseph Harris……………...Larry Pine
Ticket Man…………....Al Mohrmann


Photo courtesy of 12 Miles West


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- Bob Rendell



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