nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
June 9, 2005
It would, I think, be difficult for anyone not to get emotionally invested in a play about Fairness. Thus, an audience is willing to accept a great deal of artifice. In the case of Paul Grellong’s play, Manuscript, the injustice is plagiarism, and the plot requires a significant suspension of disbelief.
Chris and David are two freshman at two Ivy League schools (Yale and Harvard, respectively) who have been best friends since childhood. One night during winter break, Elizabeth, Chris’s new girlfriend (also a Yale freshman and a published novelist) joins them to meet for the first time David (a fledgling novelist) and to smoke a little opium before a night on the town. Unbeknownst to Chris, the two writers have actually met before: at a journalism workshop, where Elizabeth slept with David and then stole an essay of his, reworked and published it under her name— in The New York Times.
As David vacillates between reconciliation and revenge, the pivotal plot element arrives, via a set of bizarre circumstances: a new manuscript by a very recently-deceased Salinger-esque author comes into their possession and the three must decide what to do with it. (I’ve tried to keep my synopsis vague, so as not to give away the finite number and variety of secret allegiances that are exposed.) But what follows is a battle royale between Ethics and Opportunism. Guess which one wins?
The play is as black-and-white as it sounds, some of the plot points are hard to swallow, and there is a strange five-minute stretch at the end in which virtually nothing dramatic happens (no reversal; no new information, in fact). But the main event is still engaging. Credit for this is definitely due to Bob Balaban, who directs this New York premiere. He keeps this loquacious comedy crackling and coaxes a terrific performance out of Marin Ireland. Her embodiment of the villainous Elizabeth transcends the whiny, ingratiating dialogue available to her. She is gregarious, bright, and attractive—her Liz seems by far the most intelligent of the three characters and, denouement aside, the most likely to succeed.
Ireland’s stage-mates, Jeffrey Carlson and Pablo Schreiber (as Chris and David, respectively) are less sympathetic—less believable, in fact. Both men’s performances are actorly: Carlson’s elocution (his full-voiced and excessive articulation) sheds a harsh light on Grellong’s less-than-lush dialogue, which is made to be used more than admired. Schreiber affects a fiercely nebbishy wielding of words that is distracting and, from what I could tell, not necessitated by the text (David makes a couple of stock references to anti-Semitism, but that particular phenomenon is so far removed from the plot that I am surprised the lines have not been eliminated).
One other performance dynamic I found confusing is this: there is a strong homoeroticism between the two characters that is unaddressed in this fairly outspoken play. Both men have had sex with Elizabeth, but both seem strangely sexually stand-offish, and when it’s just the guys, there is a tension that is not satisfyingly resolved (or unresolved). It was unclear to me if this was an intentional directorial decision, or a more nebulous occurrence. Nonetheless, I found it distracting.
Still, the unacknowledged appropriation of another’s words, voice, or identity is such a violation that we all can relate to in some way, no matter how naïve or jaded we might be. It is very satisfying to watch a plagiarist get what s/he deserves, and that is—along with Marin Ireland— ultimately what makes Manuscript a play worth seeing. For, as with any drama that deals with an ethical dilemma, you may be surprised at the solution for which you find yourself rooting.