A twisty dark comedy about ambition and ruthlessness, with a fancifully elaborate Hitchcockian revenge plot up its sleeve, “Manuscript” advertises its cleverness with an air of self-satisfaction while artfully attempting to mask its implausibility with erudite hipster wit. But there’s no denying the flashy talent of newcomer Paul Grellong, who seems inevitably headed for a screenwriting career. The playwright’s Off Broadway debut is entertainingly served by Bob Balaban’s vigorous, playful direction and by a fine trio of young actors.
Originally planned for the tiny DR2 Theater but forced by the ongoing success of “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” into the larger house next door, “Manuscript” is the first regular play to occupy the Daryl Roth Theater. Formerly a stripped industrial box for the all-standing, long-running “De La Guarda,” the Union Square space has been efficiently reconfigured with raked seating and a wide thrust stage.
Artistic theft, specifically literary plagiarism, and the punishment thereof are the fundamental issues here. While it’s difficult to say too much about the plot without revealing its many contorted turns — some quite unpredictable — the venomous comedy centers on an unpublished novel in manuscript form. Ostensibly by a famous writer-turned-junkie, the unfinished book falls into the hands of three college students after the scribe’s death.
Action takes place over two evenings in the book-lined bedroom of David (Pablo Schreiber) in his modest family home in Brooklyn Heights, a cluttered single setting rendered with detailed accuracy by designer David Swayze.
Jumpy, Jewish David and his childhood buddy Chris (Jeffrey Carlson), a languid WASP, are a close-knit odd couple, both anxious about David’s first meeting with Chris’ girlfriend of four months, Elizabeth (Marin Ireland). The class difference between the well-heeled Chris and Elizabeth and their more socially humble host are underlined by their outfits — en route to a ball, the couple wear stylish formalwear while David is in rumpled casuals.
An aspiring writer, David is somewhat awed by Elizabeth’s precocious success. Her widely read story in the New York Times arts magazine became a stepping stone to getting her first novel published and then landing an agent and a two-book deal. The effort was not exactly tainted by association with Elizabeth’s successful novelist sister.
As David subjects her work to lit-crit dissection, something approaching animosity is hinted at, while Elizabeth’s vanity clearly feeds on the attention. But when he reads an excerpt from his own luridly cliche-ridden novel-in-progress, her condescension reveals a competitive edge, despite the lamentable quality of his work.
The brief exit of Chris to collect drug provisions from the guys’ famed author buddy allows for the first of the play’s shrewdly concealed surprises. When he returns with the aforementioned manuscript, Elizabeth’s true colors are revealed. Initially maintaining that her chief concern is delivering the writer’s art to its audience, her pursuit of self-gain is never in doubt, even as she feigns disinterest by spinning the occasion into a potential break for David.
With its shifting power dynamics and flourishes of revelation, the intricate plotting that follows is navigated with dexterity by Balaban and the cast even as the actual mechanics of the hidden agendas and laborious plans stretch plausibility.
Despite its finely manicured construction, Grellong’s dialogue is fueled by enough bitchy badinage and invigorating spite to keep the play from being scuppered by its slight artificiality and whiff of misogyny.
In Elizabeth, the playwright has created an enjoyably contemptible character, unrelenting in her under-estimation and attempted manipulation of others. Ireland keenly balances the cool, privileged air and Ivy League sophistication of a Tracy Lord type with the lean and hungry engine of cold ambition. Her casual dismissals of hedonistic Chris are especially telling.
Carlson gives the funniest perf, affecting a pompous, nasal delivery that makes his seemingly unmotivated bystander appear either intellectually outweighed or drolly aloof and superior, depending on the moment. While he clearly has something going on upstairs from the start, Schreiber ably teases the audience with patsylike behavior before baring David’s fangs.