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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
' A good mystery play is harder to write as it rarely has the luxury of amusing digressions nor the time for arbitrary distractions. Most importantly, a play with a mystery afoot must get to its point quickly, grab the attention of its audience and hold it tightly in its grip until the resolve. . . hopefully a surprise. True Story by E. (Ellen) M. Lewis, now having its premiere at the Passage Theater, accomplishes all that during its tense and riveting eighty minutes. The resolve may not be a surprise for some, but the path will undoubtedly be rewarding for many.
Sly and smartly crafted, True Story concerns the efforts of earnest, well-meaning editor/publisher Brett Martin (Judith Lightfoot Clarke) to get Hal Walker (Dan Hodge one of the mystery writers in her "stable") out of his prolonged depression following the death of his wife. Six months without writing a word and mostly walking around in need of a shave and in greater need for another drink, he nevertheless agrees to be a ghost writer for an autobiography by Donnie Lawrence (Joe Guzman), a real estate agent who was charged but not convicted for the murder of his wife.
Set free, the man behind what the hostile public and press have labeled "the story of the century," wants the "true story" told from his point of view. The catch is that Donnie has allowed Hal only three days to interview him while staying at his country home north of New York City. The rub is that Donnie is an angry, middle-aged man with a mean streak and a volatile nature.
Contemptuous of Hal from the start, he appears to do everything to prevent him from doing his job. Hal's attempt to stay within the guidelines set down by Donnie becomes both frustrating and infuriating for Hal. Increasingly judgmental and moralistic, he begins to down Scotch whiskey straight from the numerous bottles he brought with him. Hal's unstable behavior as well as his inability to get a straight answer from Donnie going to change his perspective and purpose? Clearly he's become obsessed with playing detective and questioning whether justice has been served.
How does the appearance of Donnie's fifteen year old daughter Miriam (Alex Boyle) complicate his assumptions based on his perusing the police interrogation transcripts? What do we make of the unexpected appearance of Detective Hayden Quinn (John Jezior) who was previously assigned to Donnie's case but now finds he is once again embroiled in an investigation perhaps even more baffling?
The play is cleverly structured, so that we not only get the overlapping, but also intruding, perspectives of the five characters. Engagement is easy enough as the characters move back and forth in time. Despite some gaping holes in the plot and some questionable motivations (for you to discover and ponder), they will undoubtedly provoke some lively conversation on the way home.
True Story is fueled by a devilishly intricate dramatic device that director Damon Bonetti has embraced with confidence. A co-founder of the Philadelphia Artists' Collective dedicated to producing classic plays in site-specific locations, Bonetti keeps the narrative in flow and the characters in a constant state of flux.
Hodge, who is making his Passage debut and is also a co-founder of the Philadelphia Artists' Collective, is excellent as the guilt-ridden, emotionally in turmoil Hal who is not only tormented by the memory of how his thirty-four year-old wife died, but whether he can rely on his instinct for judgmental moralizing.
Clarke is credible as the attractive, no-nonsense editor who uses the only tactics she knows to keep Hal, a writer in whom she has faith and respects, from going off the deep end. Guzman gives a chilling performance as the despicable and questionably guilty Donnie. Jezior as the confounded detective Quinn and Boyle as the confused Miriam are finely tuned to compound the mysteries set before us within designer Matt Campbell's fine set that accommodates the interior of a country home and a New York office.
As I am not familiar with Lewis's other plays that include both the Steinberg ATCA New Play Award for Song of Extinction and the Primus Prize for Heads from the American Theatre Critics Association, I can only report that this first encounter with a play by this gifted playwright was a treat.
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