In the weeks leading up to the Oct. 23 release of his latest film, "Pleasantville," movie actor, playwright and stage director Jeff Daniels is in rehearsals staging his world-premiere play, Boom Town, to open in previews Oct. 8, at the resident theatre he founded in his hometown of Chelsea, MI., 60 miles west of Detroit.
Set in a small Midwestern town, this seventh new work by Daniels to premiere in a presentation by the seven-year-old Purple Rose Theatre Company is his first serious-minded drama and his first self-directing job, Purple Rose managing director Alan Ribant told Playbill On-Line (Sept. 28.)
Boom Town officially opens Oct. 16 for a run through Nov. 29.
Meanwhile, New York City's nonprofit Barrow Group has plans to give Daniels his Off-Broadway playwriting debut with an early 1999 staging of Thy Kingdom's Coming, Daniels' satire of conservative politics and Hollywood machismo that was huge hit at the PRTC in 1994.
Barrow Group managing director Nicole Foster told Playbill On-Line (Sept. 28) that a verbal agreement exists between Daniels' agent and the Barrow Group (with an outside producer) to stage the comedy sometime after January 1999. Negotiations are ongoing for the rights and for the space, Foster said. The Barrow Group helped launch the New York premiere of Old Wicked Songs in 1996. Daniels' playwriting agent, Sarah Jane Leigh, of ICM, was out of the office the week of Sept. 28 and not available to confirm word that the Barrow Group was seeking an option on the play for New York this season. PRTC's Ribant confirmed Barrow's intentions.
The three-character Boom Town is more akin to the aggressive, clipped style of David Mamet or Sam Shepard, Ribant said. It concerns a couple (PRTC artistic director Guy Sanville and Sandra Birch) who own a convenience store in a thriving community. A banker (John Lepard) threatens both the business and the marriage.
"We've been saying it's about what happens when love competes with business and small-town politics," Ribant said.
Daniels' hugely popular works every season since the theatre's founding in 1991 have been total or near sell-outs during often extended runs in the 119-seat 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), was set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and its central joke involved hunters and their bombastic flatulence.
In contrast, Ribant said, Boom Town is expected to be violent and recommended for mature audiences only. As in the past, there are extra weeks available for an extension, Ribant said, but it's unclear whether the play's frank content will lure holiday theatregoers.
While Daniels work is popular in Michigan, and has enjoyed a few regionals stagings (Escanaba in Sacramento, CA for example), his work has yet to be seen in New York City. Plans stalled for an Off-Broadway staging of Thy Kingdom's Coming two years ago. The L.A.-set comedy is generally considered Daniels' most thematically rich piece -- about an action film star signed to play Jesus in a movie -- and was intended as a response to small-mindedness and censorship following the Reagan-Bush era.
Purple Rose, named after "The Purple Rose of Cairo," the Woody Allen film that starred Daniels, was founded 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 has yet to perform at his own theatre, where he is listed as executive director.
March saw the world premiere of Book of Days, a commissioned play by Lanford Wilson, a Daniels collaborator from the past. Daniels' name has attracted a wealth of donors and made the PRTC the envy of Michigan's small resident Equity community and the pride of Chelsea, whose best known export prior to Daniels had been Jiffy baking mixes. The PRTC annual budget is $1.1 million.
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 and for acting in such films as "Dumb and Dumber," "Terms of Endearment" and the upcoming "Pleasantville" and "My Favorite Martian."
The rest the 1998-99 PRTC season includes:
The Hole, a world-premiere drama by Wendy Hammond directed by Guy Sanville, Jan. 28-March 20, 1999.
The Big Slam, an "adult comedy" by Bill Corbett, directed by Anthony Caselli, April 8-May 30, 1999.
A comedy to be announced, directed by Randall Godwin. July 1-Aug. 22, 1999.
Purple Rose Theatre is located at 137 Park St. in Chelsea, MI. For information, call (734) 475-7902.
-- By Kenneth Jones