Titanic Comedy: Jeff Daniels’ "Diva Royale" keeps audiences laughing


Diva Royale at The Purple Rose Theatre

Kate Thomsen, Kristin Shields, Rhiannon Ragland star in Jeff Daniel's latest play, Diva Royale, at The Purple Rose Theatre. Photo by Sean Carter Photography.

You can’t typecast Jeff Daniels. He’s played someone dumb (and dumber), a highly intelligent newsman, and lots of other characters with assorted traits, interests, and careers. 

He’s got roots in the theater, and he’s equally comfortable on the big and little screen. He also writes and performs folk songs. As founder of The Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, he’s produced plays. 

Jeff Daniels writes plays, too.  

Of course, you can’t expect Daniels to limit himself to one style or subject. His 17 plays, all presented at the Rose, include a searing look at friendships between people with different incomes that mixed realism with farcical elements, a political drama that showed the way the tragic situation in Flint has impacted relationships, and a comedy about hunting set in the U.P.  He’s written in the style of Samuel Beckett and Neil Simon with equal ease.

And the Daniels play that’s on the boards at the Purple Rose now, Diva Royale, is a lively slapstick comedy that feels very much like a musical comedy. The opening night audience responded to the musicality of the show, clapping after scenes the way spectators at musicals usually clap after musical numbers.   

Daniels tells us from the get-go that three women, Midwestern housewives, have been arrested for assault as well as some unusual crimes, but he doesn’t tell us why or how. These women have bonded over "My Heart Will Go On," a song Celine Dion sings on the Titanic soundtrack. Obsessed with the movie -- they have named their children after characters in it -- as well as the song and the singer, they head for New York to see Dion in concert. It doesn’t quite work out that way.  

After he takes us on a New York adventure, where everything that can go wrong does, he circles back and we see the what, why, and how of the crime. Not that we’ve remembered the questions -- the fast-paced and hilarious journey keeps us laughing too hard to think beyond the present moment at any time. You won’t find details in this review -- the fun is in watching those moments (and the characters) unravel. 

Diva Royale is about the movies, our obsession with them, and about how characters can come into our lives and fantasies. Although Titanic is at the center of this story and the plot may bring to mind Lost in New York, there’s a tip of the hat here to the movie that gave the Rose its name. You may remember that in The Purple Rose of Cairo, the protagonist (played by Daniels) steps out of the screen and into our lives, just the way great characters always do. Watch for something similar here.

It’s not surprising that a play about the movies features visual jokes. Its success absolutely depends on triple threats, performers who can act, sing, and move with agility. The cast that Guy Sanville assembled -- three women and a man who plays multiple roles -- can do it all and they do it all crisply, with perfect timing, striking individual characterizations, and engaging in perfectly choreographed physical humor. An assault scene, danced, and a poster made tangible are two highlights. The energy never flags.

The people to thank for this pure fun are Rhiannon Ragland, Kristin Shields, Kate Thomsen, and Rusty Mewha for performances that never miss a beat and Guy Sanville for his imaginative and intelligent direction. Gary Ciarkowski has given them an open playing space for their antics on Rose’s thrust, backed by what looks like a proscenium one might find in a classic movie theater. Props by Danna Segrest sometimes add to the fun as do costumes by Shelby Newport. Lighting by Dana L White, sound by Tom Whalen, and projections by Robert W. Hubbard offer unobtrusive support to the actors.  

As different as Daniels’ plays are from one another, one thing is consistent: a mastery of stagecraft and dramaturgy.  Jeff Daniels knows how to write any play he tackles. And Guy Sanville, who always does top-notch work, knows how to give them life on stage.

Davi Napoleon is a theater historian and freelance writer. Her book is Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre.

"Diva Royale" runs through Dec. 29 at the Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park Street, Chelsea. For tickets and further information visit purplerosetheatre.org.