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Posted on Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 2:28 a.m.

'The Meaning of Almost Everything' at the Purple Rose shows a different side of Jeff Daniels

By Jenn McKee

What did you think of the play? Leave a comment and / or vote in the poll at the end of this post:


Michael Brian Ogden and Matthew Gwynn in "The Meaning of Almost Everything."

photo by Sean Carter Photograph | courtesy of the Purple Rose Theatre Co.

In Jeff Daniels’ new play “The Meaning of Almost Everything,” now having its world premiere at the Purple Rose Theatre, two men on a bare stage hash out philosophical questions like, “Is nothing nothing or is nothing something?”

The quick, scripted response to this is, “You’re beginning to annoy me” - and the tone and content of this exchange should give you a sense of what you’re in for, should you decide to check out Daniels’ latest venture: deep, sometimes paradoxical questions served up in a fast-talking, absurdist comedy package.

And while the 70-minute play defies synopsis, one of the two men (Matthew Gwynn) wants to stay where he is—a safe, blank place where he won’t face hardship or pain—while the other (Michael Brian Ogden) argues for leaving to face the inevitable ups and downs, and uglinesses and beauties, of life.

The actors in “Meaning” are, simply put, the show. Set designer Gary Ciarkowski just provides a black stage, with a closed curtain along the back, while props designer Danna Segrest needed only supply about three small items. As a result, the actors’ pronounced physical movements and snappy verbal pacing are paramount to keeping the audience engaged.

Director Guy Sanville generally succeeds at imbuing the comic, sometimes vaudevillian bits with airy lightness. (Ogden even mugs and says “ah cha cha,” a la Jimmy Durante, after delivering one punchline.) Yet sequences like the slo-mo combat by strobe light feel too expected and familiar, despite some cute, original touches by Gwynn and Ogden.

Indeed, the two actors carry the show with admirable fearlessness, approaching shoe-huffing and philosophical conundrums with equal gusto. Ogden peppers Gwynn with probing questions, comically conveys frustration, and fulfills his role’s physical demands with sure-handed skill; and Gwynn, as the man who must ultimately make this wrenching choice, is both hilarious and endearing, sometimes in the same moment.

That said, I found that despite the show’s brevity, my engagement waxed and waned throughout. Some interactions were more intellectually absorbing (either because of Daniels’ writing or the staging or both) than others; the sheer nature of the play’s dialogue eschews emotional involvement; and because the questions raised, as well as the responses, aren’t particularly new or groundbreaking, the presentation of them ultimately makes or breaks them.

Helping the effort is costume designer Christianne Myers, who dresses both men in brown, while discerning which is more the “straight man” by virtue of style and fit. And Quintessa Gallinat’s sound design, paired with Noele Stollmack’s lighting design, gives the men’s locale an ethereal, sometimes haunting, atmosphere. (Theatergoers who might sit in the first row should note that there’s some audience participation in the show, in the form of both actors, at different times, asking for a specific item that plays a role in the show.)

“Meaning” ultimately proves that Daniels is a playwright who's willing to take a risk, and venture in new directions, and that’s admirable. So while the show itself feels uneven, in the end, you can’t help but admire the courage and intellect that drives it.

"The Meaning of Almost Everything" continues through March 9 at the Purple Rose. For background, check out the preview article; for tickets, see the Purple Rose website.

Jenn McKee is the entertainment digital journalist for Reach her at or 734-623-2546, and follow her on Twitter @jennmckee.



Fri, Feb 15, 2013 : 2 p.m.

First of all I love Jeff Daniels, so I take no pleasure in telling you that this was the worst play I have ever seen. The plot or story or reason for doing this was unclear throughout. It was a muddled, confused attempt at cerebral humor. The actors both memorized their lines and delivered them as someone would who had memorized their lines. They announced before the show that there would be no intermission, which made an early escape nearly impossible. At times, to keep myself awake I would spend my time counting how many people were asleep. At one point it was actually 30% of the audience, including someone in the front row that the actors were talking to directly. This is a great theater and an excellent venue. Wait until this disaster has run its course to buy show tickets.


Fri, Jan 25, 2013 : 1:10 p.m.

In a word this production is annoying!!! The theater was only half full last night and that should tell you something. The good news is that it is only 70 minutes long. You've been warned.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 12:05 a.m.

this is from another "wise" who saw the play: It was great. I loved the start and the finish. what was really in need of work was, in my opinion, the dynamics of voice in between. "A" was loud, garish, and hardly left a person the time to digest his words. I would suggest that he slow down and let his words sink in. "A" opened this up with beautiful action but then he went loud and louder and loudest and I lost most of the words that were most likely written for his character. I got the "just" of this play in the end.. but I would have liked to see more speech dynamics from A. You cannot yell all of your lines and spit on the audience the entire time. (A, I trust you will take this with a grain of salt as you did a great job with what you were given overall). Usually I am a critic that says that the tempo is too slow but the delivery I saw was too fast. The words were rushed and by the time I semi-figured out what was going on I was pissed off at the delivery and it repeated itself. I would love to see the final draft of this play. I think it has enormous potential. I think adding in some special effects in the middle to drive it home may help. I think the message overall is good.


Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 11:41 p.m.

The artistry, thought and talent that went into this life-art performance is amazing. While I respect the opinions and shallow critiques below, this play is for the open-minded-eccentric who is will to look and listen beyond the screen. The Meaning of Almost Everything is not Transformers on Ice or Phantom of the Symphony. However, if you pay close attention, it is very violent and gross, filled with severe kicks to the groin, pain, spit, sweat and blood. Pure thought provoking entertainment.


Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 10:51 p.m.

I saw this last week and really really hated it...I mean really hated it. I adore both Matt and Michael Brian and their acting was good, but it was so difficult to sit through Jeff Daniel's view of the world...his writing rings false throughout (though there are some thoughtful moments)....I also agree that I think the critics are going to be kinder to this than they need to be, mostly because a) you don't give Purple Rose a bad review, and b) you don't give Jeff Daniels a bad review -- even when the show is bad. And this is bad.

Jenn McKee

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 5:34 a.m.

I absolutely appreciate and understand your response to the show, but I must beg to differ on the latter part of your comment. I previously wrote/published critical reviews of Daniels' "Escanaba" and "Best of Friends," just as I have other Rose shows that weren't necessarily to my personal taste - to the point, in fact, that some readers have accused me of "having it in" for the company, which, of course, I don't. I simply respond to every show at every theater on a case-by-case basis.

Barb Christine

Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 9:29 p.m.

I LOVED this piece! It is not merely a rehashing of something that could easily be shown in another medium. It is uniquely theatrical. It's a new script, and who knows, as the production grows and matures the playwrite and director may decide that this is not the final script that will be published... OR, the actors may become so adept at it, that the current script and production prove to be ready for the publisher!! I don't know... but I do know that my husband and I went to an early preview and left the theatre so excited by what we saw! Is this piece for everyone? Nope. But neither is just about any play, movie, or television show out there. However, I would strongly encourage anyone who loves the medium of theatre to go and experience this show - even if for some reason you don't relate to the script itself, I think you will thoroughy enjoy the performances of these two marvelous actors

Steve Gerber

Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 4:50 p.m.

Steve Do not take your teenage daughter to see this!! You, as well as your daughter, will not understand this. The reviewers are being overly kind because this was written by Jeff Daniels. It is probably the worst play we have seen at Purple Rose.

Barb Christine

Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 5:24 p.m.

Sorry Jenn, not going to go there. I have huge respect for all of the professional theatre companies in the area - all of which regularly bust their tails to put on shows that both "pay the bills" and feed the artistic community. My little opinion ultimately doesn't amount to a hill of beans. All I am trying to say is that this particular production is fresh and different. I haven't seen something like this since Godot or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - both of which I happen to love, but which I don't always love the specific "productions" of. I happen to think this piece is very well executed on all levels. And I think it was probably fun for the artists involved to have a shot at doing something that isn't quite as straightforward as, say "Superior Donuts" (which is not to disparage that production). A lot of people will leave this show feeling a bit "off" - and that's okay. I like shows that make you want to go to the bar or coffee shop afterwards and discuss until they turn the lights out on you! Some of these same people will come away with the feeling that they really didn't enjoy the play - super! That's okay. I think its great when shows make us think. I think one of the unique things about this production is that people will walk away with pretty strong reactions - good and bad. Look at your poll for evidence of that! :-)

Jenn McKee

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 5:26 a.m.

Barb Christine: could you provide a specific example or two of these "less theatrical" local offerings? I'd like to have a clearer understanding of the point you're making, and I think this would help. Thanks!

Barb Christine

Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 9:22 p.m.

Oh Steve, I beg to differ! My teenage daughter absolutely LOVES stuff like this. It all depends upon the kid. "Just a Voice" -I'd say if your teenager enjoys something like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (and there is a great movie of this out there to rent) she'd enjoy this. I was first introduced to that in my Sophmore year of high school and LOVED it! Much as I really, REALLY enjoyed this play. I've been disappointed in a lot of the "less theatrical" offerings as of late at most of the local theatres. They feel like "we're putting this onstage, but it probably would be better served as a TV or Movie piece". Frankly, I don't think that kind of production serves the medium of theatre. It makes theatre less than "unique" and "special" - which I think is necessary for its survival.

just a voice

Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 2:27 p.m.

who has seen this and can give me an approximate age that would be old enough to enjoy, might want to take my daughter

Jenn McKee

Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 3:30 p.m.

I'd second that. There's not a lot of adult language or anything, but the content is demanding enough that teens would probably be the youngest ones that might enjoy it.

A2 rocks

Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 2:36 p.m.

Probably appropriate for mid-teens.