"I'm such a whore for a song," said Jeff Daniels, the Emmy-winning star of HBO's The Newsroom, midway through the opening night of his series of concerts at Broadway nightspot 54 Below. Indeed, many of the original tunes during his 75-minute show are based on experiences in the life of this renaissance man of an actor, whose career literally has roots in every single medium.
Until you've watched him strum a guitar and make a roomful of people sing about not wearing pants, you don't know the real Daniels, despite having seen him as the painfully stupid Harry in the film Dumb & Dumber, the hangdog soda-fountain clerk Mr. Johnson in the movie Pleasantville, the cell phone-addicted Alan in Broadway's God of Carnage, and the beleaguered journalist Will McAvoy on TV's Newsroom. The beauty of this 54 Below show, which runs through Saturday, is that it gives an opportunity to see the real guy within all of these distinct and wonderful performances of stage and screen — laid-back, easygoing, and dryly hilarious.
There's not much fanfare on his end of the room; he just strolls up on stage without introduction, dressed to go fly-fishing in a Stormy Kromer cap, a black vest, and plaid shirt. Traditional cabaret this ain't; the atmosphere is more evocative of what you'd find in a coffeehouse when a popular, subversive musician is playing a set. Listening to Daniels' brand of sprawling, Midwest-feeling tunes and smart, poetic lyrics made us forget, briefly, that we were in New York City on a bitingly cold, snowy night.
But for just over an hour, we weren't in New York City. We were in the back of a 28-foot recreational vehicle traveling from Michigan to Cooperstown, which took an unscheduled detour when Daniels accidentally left his wife at a rest stop. We were flies on the wall as a lonely old man watched the young woman across the way go about her life. We were in the midst of an argument where our spouse dropped the bomb, "I love you, but I don't like you." And we were on a blind date where we were encouraged to take off our pants to get familiar. The songs are not for everyone, but if you're a fan of Daniels' work, chances are you'll find it an enthralling evening.
Most important, Daniels seemed to be having a great time, and when master mandolinist/violinist Brad Phillips joined him to play the gorgeous "Roadsigns" by Lanford Wilson (set to music by Daniels and the actor Jonathan Hogan), the evening acquired a transcendent kind of beauty — the kind you can only find when watching someone do what they love most.