Though best known as a film actor with a resume traversing high-brow (Terms of Endearment) and low-brow (Dumb and Dumber), Jeff Daniels has also written nearly a dozen plays for his Purple Rose Theatre Company (named after the Woody Allen film in which he starred) in his home state of Michigan. One of them, Apartment 3A, has seen its fair share of reproductions (including a production by the ArcLight just two seasons ago) around the country, thanks to its combination of light-heartedness and sentiment. Now, The Clockwork Theatre is giving it a go, trying to find a balance between its lighter and darker themes. Annie Wilson (Marianna McClellan) is a sullen fundraising director at the local public television station who, after a rough break-up, impulsively moves into a shabby new apartment. An odd triangle simmers between her, a supportive married neighbor named Donald (Doug Nyman), and Elliott (Jay Rohloff), a colleague nursing what appears to be an enduring unrequited crush on Annie. McClellan often plays Annie a tad too far on the tightly-wired side; the character is at her most entertaining and revealing when letting loose, as she does in several sharply written tirades at her station (one of which finds her threatening the livelihood of Big Bird). But opposite Nyman, the two share a sweet camaraderie that grounds the character. Because Donald is married, yet nonetheless attentive, their relationship bears all of the intimacy sans all of the baggage that an affair would encompass. Director Owen M. Smith’s scenes, particularly early ones such as when Donald offers to cook for Annie and to teach her how to waltz, are remarkable for how deft they are in creating a bond that can grow in the most surprising of places.
But 3A has other plot points in mind. Instead of Elliot loving Annie, who in turn falls for Donald, it is Donald who loves the idea of Annie loving Elliott. Annie does finally give into Elliott’s advances, largely at Donald’s surprising insistence. Their dates lead the play in a very different direction, though, with an awful lot of exposition about God, Catholicism, fate and coincidence. As a result, Daniels’ play takes on the feel of an over-preachy sermon, and wears on the patience of its audience.
3A moves into different territory altogether yet again in its second act, with several plot twists. What works best – and is excellently staged by Smith – is the crossing back and forth between Annie’s scenes with the two different men in her new life. After her encounters with Elliott, she reports back to Donald, allowing him to take on the role of father-confessor. Both men fulfill a different set of her needs and rebuild her confidence. However, there remained a tentative, still quality to McClellan’s performance. She should be transformed by her new relationships, but her character remained rigid.
On the other hand, both Nyman and Rohloff impress with sharply nuanced turns. Daniels’ play itself vacillates between light and heavy themes a little too much; it isn’t standard romantic comedy fare but it also lacks the gravitas of a more stirring drama. The lighter first act is a more nimble affair. Rohloff finds himself bearing the burden of these weighty scenes, but is at least up to the task of heavy lifting required by Daniels’ schmaltzier scenes. He is great at portraying Elliott’s earlier scenes as he fumbles in his awkward attempts to win over the reluctant Annie, but is also believable when he must defend his religious faith.
The second act of 3A would have benfited from greater humor, in a Neil Simon vein. I believe Rohloff would have been up to the challenge and would have liked to have seen McClellan flex her comedic muscles. Nyman, too, brings a great amount of insight to Donald, showing just why the character could be as generous and patient as he is. Ultimately, it is because his character is so sympathetic that the audience roots for Annie at all.
Olga Mills’ set design works surprisingly well, providing triple duty as the backdrop for both Annie’s and Elliott’s abodes in addition to the television station where they both work. Combined with the good acting of the show’s cast (including Philip J. Cutrone and Vincent Vigilante in amusing minor roles), this talent finds the heart in Daniels, and buoys up a play that could have otherwise been brought down by the weight of its playwrights ambitions.