Volume 75, Number 6 | June 28 - July 5, 2005

Villager Arts & Lifestyles

Theater

MANUSCRIPT
The Daryl Roth Theatre
101 E. 15th St.
Mon., Wed. – Sat. at 8pm; Sat.-Sun. at 3pm; Sun. at 7pm
$65, (212) 375-1110

A different kind of thriller
Three-person drama on making it in the world of publishing

BY SCOTT HARRAH

Thrillers can be pure escapist fun—both on the stage and in Hollywood movies—as long as their plots hook the audience and get everyone intrigued within the first few minutes of the opening scene. It would be far too easy to criticize Paul Grellong’s “Manuscript” simply because it takes at least 30 minutes before anything significant really happens, but one must realize that this is not a traditional thriller in any sense. Instead of blood-thirsty villains with guns and knives, this three-person drama is about privileged Ivy League students with literary ambitions—not exactly the type of exciting characters that are going to get anyone’s pulse racing.

The premise is quite similar to Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap”—a character will do anything to plagiarize someone else’s work to gain fame and fortune—but here we have a Yalie who writes novels instead of plays. However, unlike “Deathtrap” and stage thrillers of yesteryear, such as Frederick Knott’s “Dial M for Murder,” this is hardly a “whodunit” where we feel like we can figure out what characters will do next. Grellong has a far more intellectual tale to tell—one about fairness, truth, and the evils of plagiarism and deception for personal gain.

“Manuscript” focuses on the friendship between Chris Ferrando (Jeffrey Carlson), a Yalie, and his childhood buddy David Lewis (Pablo Schneider), a Harvard man who is staying at his parents’ townhouse in Brooklyn Heights during Christmas break. David is nervous about meeting Chris’s new girlfriend, Elizabeth Hawkins (Marin Ireland), a published novelist and a fellow freshman at Yale. The glamorous Elizabeth soon arrives, sporting a sexy evening gown and a party-animal attitude. Elizabeth is anxious to smoke some dope before attending a chic party, but David is more interested in discussing her first great literary success: a first-person essay about life in a posh private girls’ school that was published in the New York Times Magazine before she even graduated. The article, of course, helped her get a book deal, and David wants to know her secret to success at such a young age because he, too, wants to be a writer.

It would be unfair to disclose more of the plot, but it’s important to note that there is a strange sexual chemistry between David and Elizabeth. We soon learn that they’ve both met before—as friends and lovers. This previously undisclosed fact helps the story gain momentum and thematic tension, and by the middle of the play, one is riveted at last. At this point, “Manuscript” finally delivers true, Hitchcock-style, edge-of-your-seat suspense.

Grellong is a wonderful and insightful moralist, and “Manuscript” has much to say about the absurd things people will do to make it in the cutthroat world of publishing. The dialogue is punchy, quick-witted and socially relevant, and it often makes up for the lack of action and a few implausible plot twists. Not everything works here, but it would be petty to single out the story’s flaws. Because the play relies so heavily on the devious machinations of its characters and the glamour of the literary scene, “Manuscript” might have been more credible if the characters had been made slightly older in age and had real-life experiences to draw from.

Director Bob Balaban, who recently wowed off-Broadway audiences and critics alike with “The Exonerated,” manages to get some fine performances out of the young cast. Marin Ireland is simply magnificent as Elizabeth, and infuses her role with the intelligence and three-dimensional radiance necessary to make such a selfish character both sympathetic and believable. “Manuscript” is structured like a theme-park thrill ride that goes through a maze of twists and bracing turns. By the end of the journey, many will exit the theater feeling exhilarated.

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