nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
January 21, 2006
The novelist Rick Moody once remarked that he didn’t think about genre whenever he wrote something, citing it instead as “a bookstore problem.” Apartment 3A, the new play by journeyman stage and film actor Jeff Daniels, similarly defies easy categorization. It is part love story, part romantic comedy, part religious and philosophical treatise, and part anti-conservative tirade—with a supernatural tinge to it. It is, by turns, both funny and serious, but cannot be called either a comedy or a drama. It’s refusal to be pigeonholed makes it a little messy—much like life. Which I’m guessing is the point. Making his New York debut as a playwright, Daniels has written a play with a healthy dose of heart, humor, sincerity, and optimism, and a glaring lack of pretension and self-consciousness. Despite a number of places where it could go terribly wrong, Apartment 3A stays dutifully on its own singular course and provides a surprisingly fun and edifying night at the theatre.
Annie Wilson is pessimistic about life and love (she remarks at one such moment that her favorite color is “a lovely shade of abyss”). She’s losing faith in the effectiveness of her job as director of fundraising at the local public television station (“We’re like asparagus: we’re good for you, but would anyone in their right mind have us?”), and when she catches her longtime boyfriend cheating on her rather, um, athletically (with “Mary Lou Retton,” as she jokingly calls the other woman)—well, that’s just the straw that breaks the camel’s back. She moves into a shabby new apartment, and is immediately set upon by her overly-ingratiating and happily married neighbor, Donald. She also has to contend with a co-worker, Elliott, who is madly in love with her at a time when she couldn’t be less interested. What she doesn’t know yet, though, is that both men are going to put her faith—in everything—to the test.
Daniels, already established as a fine film and stage actor, proves that he’s as fine a writer. He’s handy with a one-liner, and gives Apartment 3A a dry and slightly misanthropic sense of humor: Annie’s on-camera meltdowns during her station fund drives are perfect examples—as is the recurring motif of polar bear mating habits strategically placed throughout the play (don’t ask, just see the show). He also keeps the action moving forward and stays one step ahead of the audience: several times during Apartment 3A, I could have sworn I knew exactly where it was going, only to have Daniels steer the proceedings in an unexpected (and completely justified) direction—always a mark of good writing. Best, and most surprising of all, is his taste for romantic optimism. I’m not going to blow the ending here (which has some twists and turns in it), but suffice to say that Daniels is rooting for Annie to end up with…well, somebody.
Director Valentina Fratti directs the show with comfort and ease, allowing the actors lots of room to play while keeping the staging both simple and authentic. She and set designer Lauren Helpern make the most of some split-screen type scenes that might keep other directors hamstrung. Traci Klainer’s excellent lighting design helps in this regard, making it clear what’s happening when, and where the audience’s focus should be. And David Newell’s fine costumes subtly reveal character without drawing attention to themselves.
Apartment 3A is anchored by a splendid performance from Amy Landecker. As Annie, she hits all the right notes in a role that showcases her aptitude for both comedy and drama. The same can also be said about Joseph Collins and Arian Moayed, as Donald and Elliott respectively, both of whom give Landecker ample and excellent support. Jonathan Teague Cook, as Annie’s salty landlord, and J. Austin Eyer, as another one of her put-upon co-workers, round out this excellent cast. (One of the main reasons Apartment 3A works so well is because of their efforts. These actors look like they are having so much fun on stage that the audience finds itself willing to follow them anywhere. They are a joy to watch.)
Apartment 3A marks both the arrival of an intriguing new writer and the return of one of the New York theatre’s favorite sons. That they are both the same person is—to use one of the play’s oft-repeated phrases—a miracle. Let’s hope we get to see more of Jeff Daniels, the writer, here in the Big Apple very soon.