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Posted on Tue, Sep 15, 2009 : 5:55 a.m.

Jeff Daniels speaks about "Escanaba" trilogy, "God of Carnage"

By Jenn McKee

“Escanaba,” now having its world premiere at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, is the third and final installment of Jeff Daniels’ stage trilogy about the Soady family’s deer camp in the Upper Peninsula. No other theater offers more buck for your buck.

And while Daniels, who lives in Chelsea, is now back in New York, starring in the Tony Award-winning play “God of Carnage” (for which he and co-stars Hope Davis, James Gandolfini, and Marcia Gay Harden all earned Tony nominations, with Harden actually taking home some hardware), he recently spoke by phone about the creation and success of his trilogy.

Q. Did you have any idea, when you were working on “Moonlight,” that it had the potential to be such a huge hit? A. No. When we put it up, in ‘95, we were just hoping it might attract people who had never been to our theater, or maybe any theater, before. We held a mirror up to things that they know — Upper Peninsula, Lower Peninsula, deer hunting — that’s what they know. And if you want to see a play about that, come on in. We’ll open the door for you. That was the intention of it.

Also, I’m a huge fan of comedy. I’ve said before that comedy is the dirty little secret of the American theater, and certainly in New York, they don’t want to talk it as being equivalent (to drama). But then "God of Carnage" comes along, and everybody has to get out of the way. Part of the reason ("Carnage") is so successful is it’s so damn funny.

Q. There was 11 years between the premieres of “Moonlight” and “Love” but only three years between “Love” and “Escanaba.” Why was there such a long lag of time between the first two? A. When I wrote “Moonlight,” it was just a one-off. It was a stand-alone. … And then it just wouldn’t die. From the movie to the Gem Theatre to the revival at the Purple Rose, we couldn’t kill it. So it became our own little "Rocky Horror Picture Show," in that people would come to see it again and again. … I didn’t want to do a sequel (to “Moonlight”), because that was so Hollywood and just a money-machine thing, so … I just stole from Lanford (Wilson’s Talley trilogy), and I said, “Well, let’s go back in time.”

I literally pulled the “Moonlight” script out and said, “Are there threads that I can use to go backwards that lead to ‘Moonlight’?” And I was able to come up with what “Escanaba in Love” became, which was the night that Betty and Albert Jr. met. But as I was writing “In Love,” I knew there was a third (play). That I was going to go for a third. All I knew was that I was going to set it in 1922, which is referred to in “Moonlight” as the year that Alphonse shot the Great Soady Ridge Buck.

Q. The series seems like it would connect most with native Michiganians, yet “Moonlight” and “Love” have both played in theaters across the country. Why do think it translates well elsewhere? A. Past the flatulence, past the guzzling of whatever that they’re drinking, are these people who are set in rituals, dealing with father-son stuff — these universal themes are underneath all that. “Escanaba in Love” is a love story. Once you get past who they are, and how they talk, and how they act, it’s a love story. With “Escanaba,” there are themes about, does everyone have a place? Does everyone have a home? What is home? … Does it really exist?

Q. Are there talks about possibly doing the trilogy in repertory at the Rose? A. It’s certainly there to be done, and at some point, we should do it. It’s just a matter of when. It’d be a big undertaking.

Q. What are you most proud of in regard to this trilogy? A. I really am a downstate, fudge-sucking troll. I don’t know anything about the Upper Peninsula. I only know what I’ve observed on the few times I’ve been up there, and reading Jim Harrison and John Voelker. … But the fact that these were complete creations out of my imagination — I think that’s what I’m most proud of, is that they’ve come off so true. People who know the U.P. far better than I do have said, “I know those people.” And I’m most proud of that. That I was able to concoct three separate plays, with long family trees, completely from my imagination. I think that’s not only a source of great pride, but a huge relief.

Q. “God of Carnage” started its second run on Broadway with the original cast, after a six week break, on Tuesday (September 8). What’s that experience been like for you? A. It’s far easier to do now. There’s no Tony Award stuff, there’s no pressure of Tony voters in the audience, we had to renegotiate to come back here in the fall — that’s all done. And we look at all these guys around us — to our right on 45th Street, Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig just started previews last night, and to our left, Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles are coming with “Oleanna.” That’s just on either side of us, and so there’s a lot of stress and tension on either side of us, and we’re walking in going, we’re a hit. We’re sold out. Enjoy the show.

It’s the dream gig. We’ve already been reviewed, we’ve already won best play, and we’re sold out. All you have to do is show up and have some fun. So in a way, all the five months of the run leading up to this have just enabled us to enjoy the fall, and that’s what the four of us are doing.