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A CurtainUp Review

Thy Kingdom's Coming
By Les Gutman

The Barrow Group has staged this New York playwriting debut of the actor Jeff Daniels so fastidiously that it begs a question. The casting is virtually flawless, producing acting that is exceptional. The direction, by Barrow's co-artistic director, Seth Barrish, is masterfully tight, well-paced and unfussy, and matched by well-conceived and executed designs. What dramaturgical blind spot, then, resulted in the choice of this anemic play as a vehicle for so much evident talent?

True, this is the kind of play we are told is the stuff of a producer's dream: one set, four actors. But there are plenty of plays that meet those qualifications, by an abundance of playwrights itching to experience a New York debut. The more likely explanation here, sadly, is Barrow's enticement by the playwright's modest celebrity.

Daniels' play takes us to the Beverly Hills hacienda of Derek Johansen (Patrick Kline), action movie star and Schwarzenegger clone " bad Northern European accent and all. His best film (he likes to call it his Gone With the Wind) is called Tired of Forgiving. It's an expression that will reverberate during the course of the play. His next scheduled movie is a sequel to Kill Zone II.

This morning's Variety leaks news that, presumably to offset the public outcry against sex and violence in movies, Derek has inked a deal to star as Jesus in a Bible movie to be called Thy Kingdom's Coming. This news is brought to him by Crash Baker (Reade Kelly), a stunt man who happens by to apply for a job as Derek's bodyguard/personal assistant. Crash's mental processes seem to have been affected by the occupational hazards of the stunt business. Crash has gained some notoriety of his own: he became known as "the best gay stunt man in Hollywood" when he took out a full page ad in Variety describing himself as such. But, as he repeatedly informs everyone who'll listen now, he's no longer gay. He even has a Certificate of Heterosexuality from the American Coalition of National Decency.

Gordon Wessler (Larry Clarke) has produced all of Derek's "masterpieces" with him. He's the brains of the operation, and is anxious to make Kill Zone III. He needs several valium when he learns Derek did the Bible deal last week at Morton's without him. Quickly, he's on the project, bringing in their very young screenwriter, Gerald Maruskin (Gregory Cook), to work on the script. (Gerald's initial review is that it is a "167 page idea with a title" -- followed by the predictable Ishtar joke.) As Derek worries about playing Jesus (normally he just plays himself) and Gordon and Gerald try to retool the Bible story into an action flick without offending the very people whose favor it is intended to garner, Crash becomes their resident spiritual adviser. He convinces them they need to get Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on their team, and spends most of his day making phone calls to arrange for Robertson to come by for a meeting.

Crash is obviously up to something, and you can see where Daniels is headed a mile away -- long before he gets there. Most of the Hollywood mise-en-scène has been scene many times before, and what passes as humor in between is not very amusing. Even the revelatory finale does little to cause a stir.

Midtown Manhattan may seem an unlikely place to stage a play about the business of making movies in Hollywood. But the obviousness of the characters Daniels has drawn would, if anything, seem more banal on the west coast where such people actually exist. The actors don't seem to notice. They've committed to them as steadfastly as if they were performing Hamlet.
 Kline is a trim, muscular specimen, physically just right as Derek. Unlike Derek, he is able to act, and is convincing in both his portrayal of the character and in his rendition of that character's stiff, awkwardness as an actor. The ovation Kline received for his recitation of "The Sermon on the Mount" was probably exaggerated, but i was a fine effort. His difficult accent (no coach credited) was also effective, even though every time he mentioned his endorsement deal for Trout River Water it sounded like he was saying chopped liver water.

Kelly is equally assured in his portrayal of Crash, an admixture of officiousness, righteousness, bulldog and BS. The roles assigned Clarke and Cook are fraught with some of the stalest caricature imaginable; both strive valiently to avoid it.

Markas Henry's set is remarkably rich and detailed, cleverly anticipating several off-stage settings Seth Barrish has conjured up. Costume, lights and sound design also reflect a genuine effort to afford this production every degree of attention. It's great to see work that rises above the foundation on which it rests. Hopefully, next time this won't be necessary.

by Jeff Daniels 
Directed by Seth Barrish 
with Patrick Kline, Reade Kelly, Larry Clarke and Gregory Cook 
Set and Costume Design: Markas Henry 
Lighting Design: Russell Champa 
Sound Design: Stefan Jacobs 
Time: 1 hours, 50 minutes with 1 intermission. 
Produced by The Barrow Group 
Neighborhood Playhouse, 340 East 54th Street (1/2 AV) (212) 479- 8589 
Opened May 27, 1999 closing June 20 
Seen May 26, 1999 and reviewed by Les Gutman May 28, 1999

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