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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

True Story: Static Center Undermines Thoughtful and Intriguing Mystery

Also see Bob's review of Bubble Boy


Alex Boyle, Dan Hodge, Joe Guzmán and John Jezior
Viewing True Story, the world premiere mystery play at Trenton's Passage Theatre, it is abundantly clear that author E.M. Lewis is a talented playwright with a gift for sparkling dialogue and clever plotting who traffics in provocative, stimulating ideas. I was delighted at the opportunity to be introduced to her work. However, despite the interest and good will which its virtues engender, True Story is stubbornly static and dull. It never quickens our pulse, as it fails to engage us in its plot machinations and pivotal characters.

New York book editor Brett Martin recruits Hal Walker, a troubled mystery writer in her stable who is suffering from writer's block, to ghost write a book for Donnie Lawrence, a real estate agent who, to the chagrin of many, had been acquitted of the murder of his wife Jess. In order to conduct the interview, Walker has to drive up to Donnie's Connecticut country home where he will have three days to interview him. Living in the house with Donnie is his 15-year-old daughter, Miriam.

The play is structured to flash forward and back in time and, after Walker's initial meeting with Donnie at the country house, True Story flashes forward to the house three days later where Detective Hayden Quinn is questioning a rattled Walker. Thusly, the playwright sets up a second mystery to the one surrounding the death of Jess.

During the final scenes of this 90-minute one-act mystery play, both mysteries are cleverly and satisfyingly resolved (although there is one misleading bit of evidence that is never explained away). Additionally, there is much clever dialogue, including appropriate to the moment literary quotes from famous authors dropped (mostly by Walker) into conversations. There are also serious issues which are pointedly provocative and intellectually stimulating. A prime example is Walker's utterance, " ... our legal system is absolutely fucked if it's more about protecting the rights of the guilty than it is about justice."

The main problem is that, rather than progressively unfolding information which gradually leads us to our knowledge of the guilt or innocence of Donnie, the cat and mouse game which Lewis' one note Donnie imposes on his conversations with Walker makes for repetitive scenes and dialogue which advance matters little from first to last. The revelations about Donnie come out of left field in Walker's final monologue. Furthermore, the events in the country house remain a mystery for too long. On the plus side, there is a considerable amount of character and plot detail which considerably enriches the storytelling.

Dan Hodge captures the guilt ridden, tortured, neurotic aspects of the coming apart at the seams mystery writer. Although Donnie is written as an unrevealing, one note character, Joe Guzmán brings energy and conviction to the role. Judith Lightfoot Clarke is particularly three-dimensional as Brett Martin. Alex Boyle's Miriam is the appropriately unhistrionic center of the play. Equally appropriately, John Jezior as Detective Quinn provides enlivening melodramatic flourish.

Director Damon Bonetti has cleanly and fluidly directed this complexly constructed play which contains three separate settings that are often performed in simultaneously. The attractive, eminently playable set is by Matt Campbell.

This is the world premiere production of True Story which was developed here at the Passage Theatre. Both play and playwright E.M. Lewis. show considerable promise.

True Story continues performances (Evenings: Thursday-Saturday 8 PM/ Matinees: Sunday 3 PM) through November 24, 2013, at the Passage Theatre Company at the Mill Hill Playhouse, 205 East Front Street, Trenton, NJ 08605. Box Office:609-392-0766; online www.PassageTheatre.org.

True Story by E.M. Lewis; directed by Damon Bonetti

Cast
Miriam Lawrence…………………Alex Boyle
Brett Martin…………Judith Lightfoot Clarke
Donnie Lawrence……………...Joe Guzmán
Hal Walker……………………….Dan Hodge
Detective Quinn……………………….John Jezior


Photo: Mathias Goldstein


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- Bob Rendell



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