The mystery novel has many fans. It is a popular literary genre that is as often as not an invitation to its devotees to get involved in a twisty narrative, a purposely convoluted plot, and a fair amount of red herrings all of which is set in motion by a host of inscrutable characters. A good mystery play is harder to write as it rarely has the luxury of amusing digressions or 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 that in during its tense and riveting 80 minutes. The resolve may not be a surprise for some, but the path will undoubtedly be rewarding for the many.
Sly and smartly crafted, “True Story” concerns the efforts of earnest, well-meaning editor/publisher Brett Martin (Judith Lightfoot Clarke) to get one of the mystery writers in her “stable,” Hal Walker (Dan Hodge), 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. Yes, all that.
Contemptuous of Hal from the start, he appears to do everything to prevent Hal 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 has brought with him. Is Hal’s unstable behavior as well as his inability to get a straight answer from Donnie going to change his perspective and purpose? What is clear is that Hal has become obsessed with playing detective and questioning whether justice has been served.
How does the appearance of Donnie’s 15-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 get both the overlapping and 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 (they are for you to discover and ponder), they will undoubtedly provoke some lively conversation on the way home.
Overall, “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 34-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.
Lewis, who received a 2012 Fellowship in Playwriting from the New Jersey State Council for the Arts, and the 2010-2011 Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University should be pleased with the fine production that Passage has given this play. 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 Theater Critics Association, I can only report that this first encounter with a play by this gifted playwright was a treat.
True Story, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 Front Street, Trenton. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m., through Sunday, November 24. $30 to $35. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.