Actor Jeff Daniels’ third play for his hometown-based theater company is a comedy about vasectomy that cuts to the quick of the American male’s ’90s dilemmas. Hugely successful here (it’s expected to run 13 weeks, no small feat considering Chelsea is a town of 3,800), “The Vast Difference” deserves a wider audience.
George Noonan (John Seibert) is a nearly middle-aged man in a fog about his role in life. He’s a flight attendant for Heartland commuter airlines, serving “all the exciting locations of the Midwest”; his wife (Jean Lyle Lepard) has given him five daughters and constantly nags him to get a vasectomy; and he’s tortured by visits from his long-deceased dad (Guy Sanville), a man’s man and devotee of Duke Wayne and the Detroit Tigers who can’t stand the thought of his boy being a “stewardess.”
George begins confiding his fears and frustrations to a urologist (Janet Maylie), an ice queen with a warped sense of humor who lends as unsympathetic an ear as she can.
On a couple of occasions, the pitch becomes a bit too fevered, with a chainsaw-toting (male) nurse, a hysterical wife with a buggy full of babies and various other apparitions running seemingly endlessly through George’s strobe-lit hallucinations.
The final scene, with George strapped in for his vasectomy, is unsettling, to say the least, and considerably more shocking than the play up to that point.
Overall, though, Daniels and the cast deliver a crowd-pleaser.
Seibert is adept at alternating between scenes of straightforward comedy, bizarre hallucination and childhood reminiscence. Daniels has a good ear for the comic in the existential struggles of Everymen like George.
As directed by T. Newell Kring, the play moves briskly. Mostly, the small cast is impressive; particularly versatile are the actors who play assorted roles in what is really George’s nightmare. Lepard is the only weak link, delivering a wooden and uninspired performance as George’s wife.
Among the real stars of the show is Peter Beudert’s set. The action takes place in one small area (the theater seats just over 100) designed to look like the baggage claim area at the Heartland terminal.
In existence less than three years, the theater grew out of what executive director Daniels learned as a member of New York’s Circle Repertory Company. The hope is that the theater might become a major regional playhouse, though Chelsea , near the university town of Ann Arbor, may seem an unlikely magnet for young talent. Of course, Daniels’ name attached to the company could make a difference.