20th Anniversary Revival Still Timely, Full Of Laughs

By Michael H. Margolin

Opening night. The Purple Rose Theatre. Chelsea, Michigan. Jeff Daniels' play, "The Vast Difference." Twentieth anniversary production. Essentially a comedy.

Setting, 1993 - the last century. George Noonan, an average Joe, is planning to have a vasectomy. Have his vas deferens cut and tied off. No more children, as the sperm cannot travel into...well, look it up on Wikipedia, if you care.

George, who has five children, does care, and among the many funny scenes is the meet cute between George and his female doctor and the succession of his resistance, his questioning of his manhood, and his relationship with his father, who is dead, but comes to life for the show. Rarely has a doctor's appointment for a relatively minor procedure turned on such a life crisis.

George's dad was a barber, and his barber chair serves many ways in the clever and minimally designed set by Gary Ciarkowski, not the least of which as the seat of George's fears and worries as a man, a son and, most of all, a reproductive machine.

See, George is a flight attendant, or as he describes himself, "a steward," and in a moment of great stress, "a stewardess." This is George's cri di couer, his deep (barber chair) seated worries: Is he a full man, in the fullest sense, or as he pleads with the urologist, Dr. Howard, when ready to go under the knife, "Please say 'Well, would you look at that thing!'"

This theme is also erected around the baseball fandom of George and his father. They love the Tigers. Dad bribes someone in management (well, it is Detroit) to let George on the field to see his beloved Al Kaline, the perfect man, athlete and god-on-earth, George's idol. (As he was to many.)

Daniels uses the theme of baseball and physical aptitude as a metaphor for manhood. Someone, somewhere said baseball was a metaphor for something or other, and "Field of Dreams" comes to mind. The Great American Pastime.

Well, does all this hang together? Is it a home run? Plenty of laughs: George, in the air, to obnoxious passenger, with his father's assistance, "You know why you can't get laid in Cleveland? Bad haircut." And aphorisms, another Daniels skill: George dreams of seeing the world, but he works for a small commuter airline and tours the Midwest. Says his father, with George chiming in, "Show me a man who has seen the world, and I'll show you a man who's never home."

Dream sequences, fantasy sequences, satire on the "man's movement," sexual put downs and set ups, and two men peeing into a basin at the ball park, are all fodder for laughs. But underneath there is a Lanford Wilson play that Daniels does not tackle. I will wait for that and take the "Difference" now.

Meantime, the key to this production - I did not see the original - is finding an actor to play George who makes YOU believe that HE believes in his quest, his fate, his unmanning. Well, indeed, David Bendena does that superbly, never pushing the laughs, never falling too far into his depressed feelings. When he decries having his father's feet, you believe that they look like a chicken's to him - even though they are comely.

His wife, Rita, played by Stephanie Buck, is very much the little woman who serves to make babies, keep George on his toes, and warn him to make that appointment for the vasectomy. She is sweet, but with a bite.

The doctor, the multi-talented Rhiannon Ragland, knows how to deliver a straight line for a laugh and a quip with a barb of truth. And look great. (One of the reasons I knew this was fiction? Because Dr. H. keeps giving George time to ventilate, ruminate and ask questions. And she replies.)

As Earl Noonan, George's barber/dad, Richard McWilliams is believable, a nice man, though for all we know, George was formed full-blown out of nothingness as no Mom is ever mentioned. Pretty much, this is a man's play, about men.

As to the men listed in the program, almost like an afterthought, as "Assorted Males," there are five actors who are wizards at changing character and costume to become, among many: Al Kaline; George's supervisor; Chico, the baseball fan and vasectomy-resistant patient; a post-vasectomy gym addict; and the leader of a movement to bring men out of manhood into - well, "transition" is the word used - or "Silly Man" in the bare-chested meetings he runs. The arm-in-arm pretzel circle with George popping out like a boy scout at a coven is both laughable and laugh-at-able. To single one out is like saying size matters; they are all wonderful: Nathaniel Eyde, Rusty Mewha, Michael Brian Ogden, Drew Parker, Tom Whalen.

And then, there is the direction. Guy Sanville, as a director, could get blood out of a stone - if he really had to, of course. As usual, he is the master of comic timing, of making two men at a urinal into a comic rite of passage, for example, or of turning a slight, funny play into a mass of comic neurosis.


'The Vast Difference'

The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea. Wednesday-Sunday through Dec. 14; no performance on Thanksgiving Day. 1 hour, 45 minutes. $18.50-$42. 734-433-7673. http://www.purplerosetheatre.org

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