Jeff Daniels, playwright, takes a shot at love




Directed by Valentina Fratti

Through February 11

Arclight Theater

152 West 71st Street

(212) 352-0255

Jackson Lynch Photo

Joseph Collins and Amy Landecker find companionship across a hall in “Apartment 3A.”

Anyone who ever saw “Ragtime” or “The Fifth of July” or “Terms of Endearment” or Woody Allen’s great “The Purple Rose of Cairo” or “Gettysburg” or “Johnny Got His Gun” or “Yellow Sky” or “Something Wild” or “Fly Away Home” or “Good Night, and Good Luck” or “The Squid and the Whale” or any of 60 or so other movies and plays in which he’s been realer than real, will know that Jeff Daniels can act — is a marvelous actor — but who knew he could write plays?

Jeff Daniels knew. He’s written nine of them.

And one of those plays, a serious, soul-lifting comedy called “Apartment 3A,” is at the Arclight Theater on West 71st Street through February 11. It’s a window into the love life of a spirited young idealist named Annie Wilson, ardent crusader for public television, blown apart by one man and put back together by another who makes himself known as the neighbor across the hall from the barren apartment in which she has taken refuge.

The actress who plays Annie is Amy Landecker, and Amy Landecker is the reason another spirited idealist directs this production. Her name is Valentina Fratti, and if you want to know, the Valentina was pinned on her by her parents in honor of Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, first woman in space. We’ll get back to her parents.

“The first time I ever read this play,” Ms. Fratti said one day last week, “I read it very quickly, and absolutely fell in love with it. That was some years ago. But then other things intervened.

“When I was assisting [director] Robert Falls on Rebecca Gilman’s ‘Blue Surge’ at the Public Theater, I met this wonderful actor Amy Landecker, from Chicago, and knew right away she was the right actor to do Annie.

“We did a reading of ‘Apartment 3A’ for the author’s agent, and the agent immediately said yes. Once that was decided, I started trying to reach Jeff Daniels. That took forever. Finally we spoke on the phone, and he was wonderful. It turned out he had done this play at his own Purple Rose Theater that he’d built in his hometown, Chelsea, Michigan.

“I said: ‘Look, I love this play. To me, it’s all about hope, and nothing’s more important than that.’ I was so enthusiastic. I think that’s what got him interested in a New York production. But at that point we were delayed again: Amy got pregnant.”

 Ms. Landecker and husband Jackson Lynch — the photographer — are now the parents of a little girl named Lola.

 With all of this, has Valentina Fratti ever met Jeff Daniels face to face?

 “No.” Two beats. “What am I saying? I’m losing my mind. I have met him. He did a gig last November at Joe’s Pub — he’s a very good singer/songwriter — as a benefit for the Purple Rose.

 “In all the contact I’ve had with him, working on this play, there’s been no garbage. In many ways he’s given me carte blanche. Which is also difficult, in a way; I’m used to working with a playwright.”

 She doesn’t even know if Daniels will come to New York to see the show.

“Right now he’s out on an Oscar junket for ‘The Squid and the Whale.’ He said to me: ‘My life is not my own.’ ”

Valentina Fratti’s life was hardly her own when for 10 years she gave her all to the Miranda Theater that she and Cathy Buxton and Raymond Haigler, then Valentina’s husband, had founded in 1989.

“For five years we were nomadic. Then we built our theater at 259 West 30th Street — and the building of the actual physical space pretty much killed my marriage. Miranda was there for five more years, and then they quadrupled the rent.”

Exit Miranda.

Valentina’s father is a playwright himself, and a prolific one. He’s Mario Fratti, who as a young reporter on Italian newspapers spent days observing Federico Fellini in action (and inaction) at Cinecitta during the making of “81&Mac218;2” and would one day put all this observation into a drama that became the template for the Broadway musical “Nine.”

Valentina’s mother, who died in 1992, was Laura Dubman Fratti, a onetime child-prodigy pianist who debuted at Carnegie Hall at age 5, but eventually went to work at MGM, where, among other things, she taught Katharine Hepburn how to play piano as Clara Schumann in “Song of Love.”

“So they became real pals.” And Katharine Hepburn is — was — Valentina Fratti’s godmother. “I grew up in a thinking, intellectual family.”

Donald, the gentleman from across the hall in “Apartment 3A,” becomes something more than a godfather to Annie Wilson. He’s played by Joseph Collins.

Elliot, the nice nervous guy at the TV studio who really and truly loves Annie — a good strong dose of sex not excluded — is played by Arian Moayed. “There’s something sort of pure and grounded in reality here. These people are not fussed over. I see the sex as total comedy,” says director Fratti. “I don’t want to seem prudish, but that’s the other thing I like about Jeff’s work: No vulgarity.”

Completing the cast are Jonathan Cook as the quirky superintendant of the building in which new tenant Annie seeks refuge, and J. Austen Eyer as a technician in a booth at WPBK, Channel 68. There’s a good deal of commotion over “Sesame Street” and Big Bird. Annie Wilson proclaims over the air the death of BB in the interest of no bullshit.

“I never liked ‘Sesame Street,’ ” says Valentina Fratti. “I liked ‘Mister Rogers.’ ” Hides her face. “Please don’t print that.”

Oh what the hell.

WWW Downtown Express