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A CurtainUp Review
More Lies About Jerzy

. . .this flexibile reality of his. . .it's seductive. Which makes it a little dangerous
-- Arthur Bausley, a journalist on the trail of the title character's true history
You're a soldier of truth, a missionary. But Jerzy is a writer, and fiction is a business of lies
-- Witold, who knows the man since childhood and is more tolerant of the liberties he may have taken with the truth.

l-r: Daniel London, Jared Harris, Gretchen Egolf (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

What is the line between artistic license and fabrication? When does a writer's use of another person's experience and words cross the line from inspiration and help to appropriation? Why do any of us reinvent events in our lives?

To explore and connect these issues, Davey Holmes has written an entertaining drama about a Polish émigré writer named Jerzy Lesnewski (Jared Harris). He couldn't have chosen a better central character than this thinly disguised version of Jerzy Kosinski, the Polish émigré writer and celebrity.

Kosinski was an enigmatic, larger-than-life personality. Upon emigrating to the U.S. in the late fifties he immediately published two nonfiction books (using a pseudonym). But it was The Painted Bird, a harrowing account of a Jewish boy's survival in Poland during World War II, that turned him into a cult figure. It was tagged as a novel but the author, a somewhat shameless self-promoter encouraged assumptions that it was based on his wartime autobiography.

Though he turned out a respectable body of other works, including the 1969 National Book Award-winning Steps and Being There (made into a movie) Kosinski was his own best story. He became famous for being Jerzy -- jet setter, polo player, television talk show guest, occasional actor (he played Lenin's sidekick Zinoviev in the film Reds).

Besides claiming to be the boy in The Painted Boy, Kosinski was not averse to spreading stories about his dark side which included prowling the sex clubs. But his active pursuit of celebrity opened a Pandora's box of secrets he would rather have kept under wraps. First, a newspaper interview revealed that the facts in the The Painted Bird were indeed fiction. Second, an erstwhile editorial assistant came forward claiming that what Kosinski considered minor help was in fact unacknowledged collaboration.

What makes More Lies About Jerzy more than an easily recognizable biodrama, is that it borrows not just incidents from the real Jerzy's life but follows his pattern of not bothering to stick too closely to autobiographical dates and details. Everything is compressed into a single year, 1972. Some of the characters are forged from real people and events in Kosinski's life, but never exactly; others are inventions. The playwright's Kosinski-like blending of fact and fiction is evident in the leading player's name -- the first part the same as the role model's, the surname sounding enough like Kosinski to feel like the real thing. The title puts the audience on notice that the play they will see may be the truth or "more lies." Whether linked closely or loosely to reality, the key characters bring us a little closer to understanding our own occasional need to edit our histories.

Jared Harris, who has previously played celebrities such as Andy Warhol and John Lennon on the big and little screen, steps into Jerzy's flamboyant and troubled personality as smoothly as he dons the 1972 style flared pants and garish print shirts. With Darko Tresnjak, himself an East European emigré, to direct him, the English born Harris has mastered the accent (I could detect only one brief slip at the preview performance I attended).

The ten-member cast, several taking on multiple roles, perform splendidly. Lizbeth MacKay is persuasive as Isabel Parris, a rich patron of the arts. She is Jerzy's faithful older friend and very occasional lover, and has her own reason (one of the less credible plot developments) for not questioning his writing methods and what in his writing might be delusion.

Gretchen Egolf is excellent as Georgia Fischer, the young woman who becomes his lover. Like Jerzy she is not quite what she at first seems. Her efforts to win his full trust make for some touching interaction, as when she states "It's hard to be with someone who won't let you in" and he responds "So how do we do this? How do I let you in?" Her reactions to her newpaper colleague, Arthur Bausley (Daniel London) and to Jerzy's use of her personal diary. are full of finely controlled emotion.

As for the unsympathetic Bausley (modelled after the Village Voice writer who was eventually discredited), Daniel London invests him with just the right mix of nerdy self righteousness, ambition and pentup sexual passion. Among the multiple role players, Gary Wilmes stands out as a designer who also grew up in Poland (a disguised Roman Polanski whose story was thought by many to be the one Kosinski "borrowed" for The Painted Bird). Young Portia Reiners shows presence in her New York debut, as a troubling ghost child seen only by Jerzy. The little girl holds the key to why Jerzy who cannot trust anyone, not even himself, with the certain truths. Unfortunately, she also embodies one of the playwright's more gimmicky devices.

Mr. Tresnjak who has proved himself capable of expertly and interestingly staging a variety of play genres, once again proves his mettle in moving his actors seamlessly from scene to scene. He expertly guides the actors through the often overlapping dialogue and never allows the frequent monologues to become static -- except for end. Coming as it does as a result of the assaults on his reputation, Jerzy's final act is counter to the personality of both the fictional and real man. Brought to us in the monologue format, it also falls flat and is out of synch with an otherwise compelling theater piece.

Derek McLane makes good use of the Vineyard's wide stage, with a sort of rear passageway to allow the actors to navigate between the main settings: Isabel's apartment. . . Jerzy's apartment. . . a space which, with a few prop changes, alternates between the Brooklyn apartment of a man (sensitively portrayed by Boris McGiver) who has his own version of Jerzy's childhood and the Authors Guild hearings of a charge that one of Jerzy's assistants co-wrote The Vantage Point (Holmes' name for The Painted Bird).

Take a close look at that set. You'll see that the walls and posts are covered with Polish words. An elegant and subtle way of underscoring of the fact that More Lies About Jerzy is less about the colorful literary celebrity than it is about words: how they are put together. . . their real and hidden meaning. . .their effect on other people. . .and the way we manipulate them to make painful and unpleasant emotions more bearable.

If More Lies About Jerzy has stirred your interest in reading or re-reading The Painted Bird, it's still widely read and available in our bookstore: The Painted Bird

By Davey Holmes
Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Cast: Jared Harris, Lizbeth Mackay, Gretchen Egolf, Daniel London, Boris McGiver, Betty Miller, Portia Reiners, Martin Shakar, Adam Stein, Gary Wilmes
Set Design: Derek McLane
Lighting Design: Frances Aaronson
Costume Design: Linda Cho
Sound Design: Laura Grace Brown
Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, including one intermission
Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St. ((Park Av S./Irving Place), 353-0303
1/05/01-2/11/01; opening 1/21-- Tues-Sat 8 pm, Sundays at 3 and 7 pm -- $45.

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 1/18 performance

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