Up For a Challenge

Special Features   Up For a Challenge That's what Jeff Daniels — long absent from the New York stage — was looking for. And he found it in David Harrower's riveting drama, Blackbird.
Jeff Daniels in Blackbird.
Jeff Daniels in Blackbird. Photo by Joan Marcus

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Her name may or may not be Una. His name may or may not be Ray. They are together in this room, it might be a section of a factory, it might be a fleabag hotel.

"What's important and what isn't, that's what you work your way through," says Jeff Daniels, the always deeply believable actor who plays Ray to young Alison Pill's Una in Blackbird at Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center Stage I. "Where to land," says Daniels. "It's a hard road. It's the way people talk, especially people in this situation."

The basic facts about the two people in this situation are that 15 years have passed since their last encounter, when he was 40 — and she is 27 now. "Do the math," says Daniels bluntly. "What I think is interesting is that the two characters stay in the room, the audience stays in the room, the actors stay in the room, and that's what happens for 90 minutes."

Daniels, whose more than 50 movies span the quarter century from "Ragtime" (1981) to "Good Night, and Good Luck" (2005), who broke into theatre with Off-Broadway's Circle Rep in the 1970s, and who himself is a playwright to keep an eye on, has been adhering to a promise he and his wife Kathleen made ten years ago, up there in Chelsea, Michigan — where his Purple Rose Theatre Company has put the town back on its feet despite a collapsing auto industry — that he wouldn't tackle any more New York theatre until their three kids got through high school. Movies are okay. "There's plenty of money, they give you lots of time off, you can come home a lot to be Dad." He had, he confesses, been "flirting" with New York the past five or six years, but in the end had always turned down MTC's Lynne Meadow, for whom he'd done Andrei in Chekhov's Three Sisters back in '82. Then, last year, when he was shooting a movie on the West Coast, Meadow sent him Blackbird, by some unknown-in-America Scotsman named David Harrower.

"I started reading, didn't have a clue — but saw immediately this was something that was going to get me on stage at eight o'clock every night. A challenge. Then Joe Mantello got into it [as director]. I said, 'Joe, you choose a girl and I'll show up.' Matter of fact, the first rehearsal was today. I met the playwright."

And do you now have a clue? "Uh-huh," he grunts. "But I don't have all the answers."

The Purple Rose Theatre is named for the brilliant 1985 Woody Allen movie in which Daniels plays the leading man who steps down from the screen and into Mia Farrow's life.

"I'd been in New York nine years. Halfway through the shooting, Woody told me I was good. I knew from that moment I could go on. It didn't matter what the critics said. That was validation."

Even for a blackbird.

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