A different kind of thriller
Three-person drama on making it in the world of publishing
BY SCOTT HARRAH
Thrillers can be pure escapist funboth on the stage and in Hollywood moviesas 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 Grellongs 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 ambitionsnot exactly the type of exciting characters that are going to get anyones pulse racing.
The premise is quite similar to Ira Levins Deathtrapa character will do anything to plagiarize someone elses work to gain fame and fortunebut here we have a Yalie who writes novels instead of plays. However, unlike Deathtrap and stage thrillers of yesteryear, such as Frederick Knotts 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 tellone 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 Chriss 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 its important to note that there is a strange sexual chemistry between David and Elizabeth. We soon learn that theyve both met beforeas 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 storys 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.