If you think writers have problems, and if you think Ivy Leaguers have problems, you haven't seen anything until you've seen the life of an Ivy League writer. Or, well, you probably have, at least as far as Manuscript is concerned. Paul Grellong's nail-filing new play at the Daryl Roth Theatre strives to be the theatrical equivalent of a provocative page turner, but never achieves much better than checkout-line reading.
That the central characters are all currently studying at Harvard and Yale is actually incidental to the story, unless you care to look at the 90-minute play as an acidic critique of elite-educated ethics and morality. Personally, I'm more inclined to believe that Grellong's choice of universities was arbitrary, and that the reputations of those esteemed institutes of higher learning remain unimpeachable. As for the reputations of Grellong, director Bob Balaban, and the show's cast, I'm less sure.
None of them seems to have realized that a plotty play is not by definition a good play. Manuscript has twists and turns aplenty, with new directions here, unexpected revelations there, and even a Big Shock or two for apparently the sole purpose of justifying the work as a dramatic entity. But if this is a show bursting with story, it's considerably less stuffed with insight, juicy character content, hearty laughs (the play is ostensibly a comedy), or even believable writing. This all makes the play, as compelling as it often is, something of a drag.
But when Grellong sacrifices himself completely to the Gods of Narrative Complexity, it becomes moderately enjoyable. There's some fun to be found in following the convoluted relationships of Harvard writer David (Pablo Schreiber), his longtime friend Chris (Jeffrey Carlson), and Chris's girlfriend at Yale and nationally renowned author Elizabeth (Marin Ireland): David's long lusted after Elizabeth, but was rebuked in a particularly painful fashion that also resulted in the stalling (if not outright destruction) of his own writing career. She's now stuck on her second novel, with a deadline looming and no pages forthcoming.
And what do you know, Chris arrives back from a shopping trip with a mostly finished manuscript from a (very) recently deceased brilliant writer of even greater renown that Elizabeth. The book could make them all, as long as they don't mind ignoring the messy moral implications of passing someone else's work off as their own. (They don't.) And as long as they have the cunning and wherewithal to do everything necessary to take credit for the work before the real author is discovered dead.
If they didn't do that, there wouldn't be much of a play, and that's as good a reason as anything in Manuscript has. From a strict storytelling standpoint, though, Grellong doesn't have trouble tying it all together; more difficult for him is having his characters speak and interact like human beings. They all speak like 40-year-old alcoholics trapped in 20-year-old bodies, and the perverse archness that pervades every spoken line makes it difficult to take much of what's said seriously. (One of his biggest laugh lines: "Thematically speaking, Jews and girls - they're not the same." Provide your own "Jewish girls" punch line.)
This leaves the youthful, attractive cast up the creek with too much prattle: Ireland, who gave an astonishing, psychologically complex performance in last season's Sabina, is here robustly two-dimensional; Schreiber employs a grating "aw shucks" personality to belie the deeper, darker secret his character must have in any play of this nature; and Carlson pulls back so far from the flouncy, flamboyant roles with which he's recently been associated that he seems to be phoning in his performance from Cambridge (Massachusetts or England, your choice).
He and Schreiber seem most engaged (and engaging) when they're toying with some gay subtext to their characters; whether that's anything Grellong intended, however, is never clear. Balaban, whose work elsewhere in the production is solid if unremarkable, has done nothing to discourage their explorations. That's a good thing - they provide a glimpse at a more interesting facet of the characters than any that has actually been scripted, and allow at least one legitimately interesting thing to discuss upon leaving the theater.
Everything else is tied up into nice, tidy, unenticing packages, albeit ones covered with impressively twisty ribbon. Grellong would do better to remember in the future that, ultimately, it's what's inside that counts. Once the wrapping of Manuscript is removed, the insides are very, very empty.