Actor Jeff Daniels has his New York City playwriting debut May 27 when The Barrow Group, in association with Donna Knight, opens Thy Kingdom's Coming, Daniels' sendup of Hollywood personalities and political conservatives.
Previews began May 21 at the Neighborhood Playhouse, 340 East 54th St., where the staging continues to June 20. Seth Barrish directs a cast that includes Larry Clarke, Gregory Cook, Reade Kelly and Patrick Kline.
Hollywood actor Daniels ("The Purple Rose of Cairo," "Dumb and Dumber," "Terms of Endearment," "Pleasantville") was in Manhattan for the play's final dress and tech. He pokes fun at Hollywood images and prods Washington intolerance in his play, which had a 1994 debut by the Purple Rose Theatre Company, an Equity troupe Daniels founded in his hometown of Chelsea, MI., where he still lives.
Purple Rose audiences (in semi-rural Washtenaw County, 60 miles west of Detroit) embraced the wild comedy despite its hot-button references. In the play, a Stallone-type action star named Derek Johanson wants to change his image by playing Jesus Christ in a religious epic.
Audiences roared at Daniels' quartet of Hollywood dealmakers rewriting the New Testament to make it more audience-appealing (Jesus has an affair) and tailoring the Bible to fit the lunkhead star (the Sermon on the Mount is reduced to four lines, ending with "OK, who wants some fish?"). Thy Kingdom's Coming was Daniels' fourth play to premiere at the 119-seat Purple Rose. He's averaged one play per season, mostly comedies: Shoe Man, The Tropical Pickle, The Vast Difference, Apartment 3A, Escanaba in da Moonlight and fall 1998's serious-minded Boom Town, which he directed. Daniels has not acted in any of his works in Chelsea.
His plays have been total or near sell-outs during often extended runs in the Garage Theatre, the PRTC's home. His comic style might be described as heightened Midwestern comedy: He often punctuates his Midwest-set plays with fantasy sequences or raucous physical humor.
Escanaba in da Moonlight, for example, his biggest hit (revived once already by PRTC), was set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and its central joke involved hunters and their bombastic flatulence. There is talk that a remounting of the woolly Escanaba at the historic Gem Theatre in Detroit in fall 1999.
Some of Daniels' plays have found life in regional theatres such as B Street Theatre in Sacramento.
Daniels was to have had his New York writing debut several years ago with Circle Repertory's staging of The Vast Difference, a male potency and mid-life crisis comedy, but Circle Rep dissolved around the time of production meetings.
Designers for The Barrow Group's Thy Kingdom's Coming are Markas Henry (sets and costumes), Russell H. Champa (lighting) and Stefan Jacobs (sound). The Barrow Group helped launch the New York premiere of Old Wicked Songs.
Tickets for Thy Kingdom's Coming are $15. For information, call (212) 479-8589.
The Purple Rose, named after "The Purple Rose of Cairo," the Woody Allen film that starred Daniels, was founded in 1991 to give Michigan and Midwestern writers, actors and designers the chance to create mostly new work. Occasionally, non-Midwestern writers have worked there, too. Daniels' title is executive director.
In March 1998, Lanford Wilson's Book of Days had its world premiere there and was named Best New Play by the American Theatre Critics Association in 1999.
The folky, unaffected Daniels, who resides in Chelsea with his wife and children when not on film location, is known for New York stage roles in Wilson's Redwood Curtain and Fifth of July.
-- By Kenneth Jones