Sometimes plays about theatre can be a little pretentious. The script for Jeff Daniel’s GUEST ARTIST – now playing at the Clifton Performance knows this and feeds into it delightfully. Kate Wilford takes this interesting script and directs three of Cincinnati’s finest actors through dense dialogue, some intricately timed banter, and tells a compelling story of an aging playwright and a young hero-worshipper . . . all while never leaving a bus station.
Carter Bratton is “Kenneth,” a star-struck wannabe playwright who has been tasked with collecting Pulitzer winning “Joseph Harris” (Daniel Britt) from the bus station and taking him to the Steubenville Playhouse. Harris has been commissioned to write a world premier for the regional theatre but he’s not thrilled about it. Rounding out the cast is Michael G. Bath as the long-suffering, regulation-following ticket counter clerk. Per usual, Bath finds a way to milk every second, every nuanced reaction, and every line for just the right amount of hilarity.
Bratton is a talented everyman and he excels when he is listening and reacting on stage. His connection to Britt, who authentically straddles charismatic earnestness and bombastic arrogance in his portrayal of Mr. Harris, is at its best when he is listening and responding to the droll wisdom dripping from the mouth of his hero. Britt, who brought this play to the Clifton crew, is unusually elegant, while maintaining the gritty demeanor most of us love from him. It’s nice to see him sink his teeth into something like this.
The opening night audience, while somewhat sparse, was mostly receptive to the piece. Some trimming from the playwright would make this piece have more impact; Wilford keeps the action moving, though, and blocks the intimate space in the basement theatre in a way that engages both sides of the stage. The set is minimal, but effective to set time and place, and the use of a few sound effects and a public address system to announce the bus arrivals and departures adds to the rich texture of time and place.
If I had any complaints about the piece it’s that some of the more emotional elements feel a little forced – both into the script and thus into performance. I’d have liked to have seen a more organic way of showing this progression of the fading playwright into the emotional climax instead of the devices employed by Daniels.
There are some important lessons to be learned in this production. Playwrights, actors, any artist will resonate with the themes and many of the lines. It’s a worthwhile night of theatre to be certain.
GUEST ARTIST plays through October 7th at the Clifton Performance Theatre at 404 Ludlow Avenue. Tickets and more information can be found here.