Review by Lissa Urriquia Gapultos of “Guest Artist”: Clifton Performance Theatre
Clifton Performance Theatre opens their season with Guest Artist, a 3-person play set in the bus station of Steubenville, Ohio, a place where you go only if you have to, according to Joseph Harris, the fictional Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who is a character in the play. To be clear, Guest Artist is written by Jeff Daniels, known best as the actor of TV, movies and the stage; he does not have a Pulitzer.
The play begins showing the caged ticket counter, behind where the Ticket Man (Michael Bath) is stationed to earnestly and mellifluously announce bus arrivals and departures– along with each stop of the entire route leading to the final destination. It’s a great comedic bit that is used throughout the play, and creates a special kind of hilarity in moments of tension.
The local James Dean Theatre Company has commissioned the playwright Joseph Harris (Daniel Britt) to write a new play and rehearsals start later that day. Kenneth Waters (Carter Bratton), a young apprentice of the theatre, is at the bus station to greet the playwright. This seemingly simple task becomes THE unfortunate event which grows into a full-blown fiasco. The two men verbally spar, the seasoned playwright in full attack mode using his wise and wily prose, along with his matter-of-fact reminders of his Pulitzer Prize.
In the role of Joseph Harris, actor Daniel Britt exudes the brash cynicism one would expect from an alcoholic playwright who feels he has earned the privilege to have his needs and wants fulfilled. Britt portrays an unhinged individual who is full of self-doubt, fear and perhaps loneliness. His second act lengthy monologue recalling his 9/11 experience is chilling, and demonstrates Britt’s range as an actor.
Carter Bratton is convincing as the eager-to-please apprentice who idolizes Harris, hanging onto every syllable uttered by the playwright, hoping to acquire invaluable inspiration. Bratton clearly shows Kenneth’s internal struggle with job security, his own artistic aspirations, and being Harris’s fanboy. This character is not just the yin to Joseph Harris’s yang, Kenneth is the closest to normal between the two extremes of the ultra-ordinary Ticket Man and Pulitzer Prize-winning Joseph Harris.
Guest Artist is loaded with the ups and downs of the creative thought process, but goes even further than that with the idea that no one can truly own art, a work goes on to transfer ownership for all of eternity. The play also addresses of the hard truths– the fears, the abuse, the addiction, the vulnerability, the mental anguish– that can take its toll on an artist. These hard truths also are what inspire work that feels authentic and honest, for both artist and audience.
The play’s dialogue is witty and dark, inciting constant fits of laughter, especially in the first act.
Still, there are true, heart-felt moments of melancholy and self-reflection. It seems that all of this would be so much less with an ineffective cast. Thankfully, director Kate Wilford has beautifully made each of her already highly-skilled actors recognizably human, whether good or bad.
Guest Artist runs through October 7 at Clifton Performance Theatre. Tickets can be purchased at brownpapertickets.com