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A CurtainUp Review
Paul Grellong's Manuscript is a hard play to review. It's not that it's opaque or hard to follow. On the contrary, it's fast-paced and entertaining. The dialogue is articulate, often funny and filled with of the moment allusions (instead of the by now de rigueur references to Charley Rose, NYTimes Magazine's ethicist Randy Cohen is quoted -- to this writer's knowledge, a first). However, because the plot entails a mystery, it's hard to tell you too much about it without spoiling the fun of figuring out what's going on from the clues scattered throughout like Hansel and Gretel's trail of bread crumbs on the way to the wicked witch's house.
The mystery doesn't involve a murder but instead swirls around the knotty motivations that bring the three post adolescent characters together for two eventful evenings in a Brooklyn townhouse during the winter break from Harvard and Yale. Given the title and the fact that two of the three characters are ambitious writers, the title seems immediately and obviously apt, and it makes sense for that title item to be the focal point of the mystery -- the equivalent of a suitcase filled with the money from a bank hoist that lands in a bystander's car, leaving him to turn it over to the police and possibly come under suspicion or to instead follow the finders/keepers motto.
Everything in Grelling's script is there for a purpose. Thus the collection of action figures from professional wrestling on a table in David's (Pablo Schreiber) bedroom where the two evenings play out are a metaphor for the story line. As David sees it wrestling is "the only innovative form of modern dance we have left" and the fact that it's all a charade is what appeals to him about it. The interaction between him and his long-time friend Chris (Jeffrey Carlson) and Chris's girl friend Elizabeth (Marin Ireland) might well be summed up as an artful dance for a trio of people dealing with loyalty, betrayal and ambition. As wrestling can be applied to the world of publishing, so the difficulties facing those wanting entree into that world easily translates to show business and any highly competitive milieu.
Despite Bob Balaban's snappy direction, however, the play has too many ice box moments (director Alfred Hitchcock's term for plot elements that stretch credibility). The three actors, who have proved themselves capable of superb acting (Carlson in Taboo and The Goat; Ireland in Sabrina; Schreiber as the mostly silent but finally explosive victim in Sin), can't overcome the fact that the characters Grellong has written them are too derivative to make a lasting impression. The aura of entitlement and the insistently bright, nonstop talk seems to aim for the feel of work by such British writers as Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis and his son Martin. But the play that Manuscript seems to most closely resemble is Kenneth Lonergan's very American This Is Our Youth..
Like Lonergan's much produced play, Manuscript unfolds over two days in the lives of these not especially likeable young people. It's also targeted to the late teens and early twenties' crowd that many fear have left it to the cottonhead crowd to fill the seats at nonmusical Broadway shows. Judging from the predominantly young audience I saw at last Thursday's press preview, that target is being reached. It remains to be seen whether Manuscript can, like This Is Our Youth, draw older audiences -- which has become more important given that it was intendeded for the smaller of Daryl Roth's two 15th Street theaters, but is making its debut in the 250-seat DR2 due to the success of Thom Pain.
For all the similarities to the Lonergan play, none of the Manuscript characters are slackers or college dropouts. All three are quick-witted students at top Ivy League colleges, with two of the three (David and Elizabeth) hyper-ambitious. In fact, eighteen-year-old Elizabeth already has one foot firmly planted on the literary success ladder, with a published novel and a New York Times Magazine piece and novel. Just in case you don't catch the parallel to Joyce Maynard's early success and connection to J. D. Salinger, Grelling has tossed in an unseen reclusive writer whose sudden death triggers the manuscript dilemma. Chris is more laid back but his relationship with the other two is actually the most complex.
The book-lined setting and the circumstances surrounding Elizabeth's early literary success will also bring reminders of David Margulies' Collected Stories, another examination of friendship, betrayal, and literary ambition. The production values are first rate, especially David Swayne's nicely detailed set. If there's one complaint it's that the green evening gown Sara Tosetti has chosen for Marin Ireland to wear during the first night doesn't fit her nearly as well or as flatteringly as Jeffrey Carlson's tux fits him.
Elizabeth, Chris and David are fun to watch but easily forgettable. Similarly, the prose of the manuscript at issue probably has insufficient merit to leave all that lasting a mark on the literary horizon.
A caveat: All who attended the long running De La Guarda at the DR2 which had no seats at all, will welcome a chance to sit in comfortable seats rather than stand. However, the wide stage makes sitting in the side sections of the central seating area something of an uncomfortable neck stretching experience. The seats in the small thrust section don't given an ideal view of the actors. With the price the same no matter where you sit, you would be well advised to request center section seats.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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>6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by our editor.
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