Finding an apartment in the Midwest is apparently a little less stressful than in New York. When television broadcaster Annie Wilson (Amy Landecker) walks out of a soured relationship, she moves into a new place that night.
Fortuitously, she's found the title location of "Apartment 3A," a faintly irritating romantic comedy by actor Jeff Daniels in which the romance is confused and halting and the laughs so light they barely land.
To his credit, Daniels intends the wobbly love triangle between Annie, co-worker Elliot (Arian Moayed), and over-solicitous neighbor Donald (Joseph Collins) to crack open larger themes - nothing less than questions of God, fate and the meaning of life. But the result is a watery mix with themes stated baldly and mysteries hidden in plain sight.
Director Valentina Fratti's smooth but diffident production doesn't help. She generates precious few sparks among a competent cast, whose flare-ups of emotion seem incongruous.
How are we supposed to feel about Donald, who repeatedly barges into Annie's apartment to rave about his gorgeous but absent wife? His presumption of instant intimacy is off-putting, but Annie overcomes her distaste and embraces Donald as a confidant, and possibly more. Incredibly, it is this smiling creep who will help a wounded woman to love again.
The thin, brittle Collins may be miscast as this cloying interloper - more of a conceit than a character. Indeed, one can almost imagine the laconic, hangdog Daniels himself giving the role, and the play, a bit more heft and heart.
A versatile film actor ("Terms of Endearment," "The Purple Rose of Cairo," "Dumb and Dumber," and most recently "The Squid and the Whale"), Daniels has been writing plays for 15 years, since returning to his hometown of Chelsea, Mich., to found the Purple Rose Theatre Company. His model for the company was the Circle Rep, where Daniels got his start in the early 1970s. The influence of Circle Rep's resident playwright, Lanford Wilson, is apparent in "Apartment 3A," which could almost be a room upstairs from the lobby of "The Hot l Baltimore."
If Daniels hasn't quite fashioned a successful play, he does show that he can shape a scene. In one disastrous lunch between Annie and Elliot, the playwright mingles humor and pain with grace and wit, and Fratti's direction shows everyone to advantage. Moayed wields a winning confidence against the sharp Landecker.
Elsewhere, the actress flounders with Annie's blurry emotions although she does her level best with a pair of unbelievable on-air breakdowns during a public-TV pledge drive. It's meant to be trenchant and funny when she threatens the life of Big Bird and his Muppet friends if viewers don't cough up their cash. But there's a whiff of the banal about even Daniels' boldest gambits - a nagging vacancy in this underfurnished "Apartment 3A."
APARTMENT 3A. Written by Jeff Daniels. Directed by Valentina Fratti. ArcLight Theatre, 152 W. 71st St., Manhattan. Through Feb. 11. 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 7 p.m.
Sunday-Monday. $15. Call 212-352-0255. Seen Saturday.