STRUMMING HIS STUFF Jeff Daniels is known as a great actor, but not everyone is aware that he's also a highly accomplished singer/songwriter. Proof of his abilities in this area will be displayed on Monday, November 13, when he appears as part of the Broadway at Birdland series, performing an eclectic array of comic and poignant numbers about his car, his wife, and other personal subjects.
"It was very freeing to write most of these songs, because I never thought they'd see the light of day," says Daniels. "I was just chronicling my life in this big, black notebook. But then the PR people at the Purple Rose, my theater in Chelsea, Michigan, pushed me on the stage to do a benefit a few years ago. Among other things, that forced me to learn to play the guitar better. Now, I use these instructional DVDs, since I have time when I'm sitting around in hotel rooms on location. When I go into a club like Birdland, I don't want the other musicians to think I suck."
Daniels, whose second CD will come out this month, says that he was always a musically inclined person. So why hasn't he performed in a Broadway musical? "When I was living in New York in the 1970s, my agent sent me out to audition for Oklahoma! I watched all these song-and-dance people who had really studied, and then I came out with my guitar chords and handed my music to the piano player. Not surprisingly, they said, 'Next.' Recently, I've been offered replacement opportunities in shows like The Producers and Chicago, but I'd really prefer to originate a role if I'm going to do a musical."
He will return to Off-Broadway next spring to star in a new play: David Harrower's two-hander Blackbird, at Manhattan Theatre Club, opposite 2006 Tony Award nominee Alison Pill. "I just love the script," he says. "It's powerful, disturbing, challenging, and it scares the hell out of you. It reminds me a lot of the work I did at Circle Rep for 10 years. It's just actors acting." Daniels has also filmed a number of movies in the past year, including the recently released Infamous, in which he plays Kansas cop Alvin Dewey, and Mama's Boy, with Jon Heder and Diane Keaton. "I get to sing as part of a little jazz trio in that one," he tells me. "I sing 'Too Marvelous for Words' directly to Diane. That was really a thrill. She is so much fun to work with."
Meanwhile, Purple Rose audiences are responding happily to Daniels' 11th play, Escanaba in Love, a prequel to his hit Escanaba in da Moonlight. "When I was fishing around for something new to write," he says, "I thought maybe it was time for me to write a trilogy, like Lanford Wilson did with his Talley plays. So I got this idea of going back 45 years to 1944 and the night when the lead character, Albert, met his wife and brought her to the deer camp. Now, I'm working on a play set in the 1920s, about when the deer camp was first built."
COMING UP: SHORT
The answer is, "One of the funniest episodes in game-show history." The question is, "What is the November 9 edition of Celebrity Jeopardy?" The show features Broadway stars Mario Cantone, Joely Fisher, and Martin Short playing for their favorite charities. I won't tell you who won, but I do have a few juicy tidbits that I learned from watching the taping. Short's favorite category, "Canadians Who Were Mildly Interesting in the 1980s," didn't come up. Nor did Cantone's favorite, "Classic Disney Animation." Only one of the three contestants made it into Final Jeopardy, because the tournament has different rules than the regular show. Theater fans will love the Final Jeopardy category. And, oh yes, the stars of a hugely popular Broadway show make a surprise guest appearance.
Celebrity Jeopardy will air for two weeks (through November 21). Other stars who will show off their knowledge (or lack thereof) include Dana Delany, Neil Patrick Harris, Susan Lucci, Christopher Meloni, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Bebe Neuwirth, and Sam Waterston. In all, the Jeopardy producers donated $1 million to various charities, including Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the Big Apple Circus, and The Actors' Fund of America.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MAKES
Does Jennifer Aniston have a future in the theater? On the evidence of her very natural performance Monday night at The 24 Hour Plays, the answer is yes. The former Friends star effortlessly shared the stage with theater pros Rosie Perez (who did one of the evening's funniest turns) and Lynn Whitfield in Adam Bock's playful Three Girls and Bob, about three women at an intimacy seminar who put an unwitting hotel guest (David Cross) into a sticky situation.
Among the evening's top acting efforts were Amy Ryan as a politically riled-up wife in Terrence McNally's powerful The Sunday Times, a manic Sam Rockwell in Adam Rapp's typically creepy Jack on Film, Anna Paquin as a tough-then-scared wife in David Ives' Pinter-esque The Blizzard, and a ridiculously Spanish-accented, Gran Centenario Tequlia-bearing Elizabeth Berkley-Lauren in Tina Howe's Toccato and Fugue. Another huge audience favorite was Julianna Margulies, who cracked up repeatedly during Julia Cho's seriocomic The First Tree in Antarctica. Kudos also to musical group They Might Be Giants for entertaining the packed house at the American Airline Theater between playlets with their witty, offbeat tunes.
There to support the onstage celebrities were film beauty Naomi Watts (whose boyfriend, Liev Schreiber, co-starred in the McNally piece alongside his brother Pablo Schreiber and Michael Ealy); Margulies' Festen co-star Jeremy Sisto; and handsome Mark Feuerstein, who's about to return to series TV opposite Stanley Tucci in the CBS medical drama 3 lbs.