The truth about Jerzy Kosinski may never be known completely, but even in its hazy state it’s more interesting than Davey Holmes’ thorough but lifeless fictional version of the controversy surrounding the novelist. “More Lies About Jerzy,” the second offering this season from the Vineyard Theater, attempts to use the strange case of Kosinski as a meditation on the elusive nature of identity and the deceptions that cloud all human relationships. The concept is intriguing, but Holmes’ writing is more prosaic than his themes, and his characters remain stubbornly two-dimensional.
The Kosinski stand-in, played by Jared Harris with a thick accent that may be intended to add another layer of opacity to his character, is called Jerzy Lesnewski. The year is 1972, and Jerzy is being lionized on chatshows for his hard-hitting, award-winning memoir about his childhood in Poland. He claims he spent the war years separated from his parents, hiding from the Nazis in villages and suffering excruciating abuse.
But an admiring reporter, Arthur Bausley (Daniel London), and his comely research assistant, Georgia (Gretchen Egolf), soon discover discrepancies between Jerzy’s various accounts of his childhood. At the same time, Jerzy is being interrogated by a guild tribune in relation to charges leveled by a former assistant claiming that he wrote a significant portion of Jerzy’s book.
Kosinski was indeed accused of both plagiarizing others’ writing and passing off pure fiction as autobiography in his novel “The Painted Bird.” But these are two distinct issues, and Holmes might have been better off departing from the facts to explore one of them more deeply. As it is, they vie for stage time with a couple of other subplots: Jerzy’s seduction of Georgia, who lends him her diary and finds its contents recycled in his writing, and Jerzy’s relationship with literary hostess Isabel Parris (Lizbeth Mackay). Also wandering about the play are various ghosts from Jerzy’s Polish past — real and imaginary — who hold clues to the truth about a violent incident in his book that’s in particular question.
All these plotlines neatly — perhaps too neatly — echo the play’s central theme of the elusiveness of the truth. Georgia and Jerzy spar over the question of emotional exposure. (“Be yourself,” she implores him. “Everyone is conscious of the impression they make. How you act with your mother, it’s different from how you act with me,” replies Jerzy.) And it’s revealed in the second act that Isabel has been practicing her own deceptions.
The use of multiple narrators also dovetails with the play’s subject: All the characters close to Jerzy step forward to give us their (conflicting) perceptions of his behavior. But the result is overkill: In scene after scene, Holmes plays variations on the same themes without deepening their significance or adding dimensions to the characters onstage.
Despite largely adequate performances (and one that’s more than adequate from Boris McGiver as a Polish expat), Jerzy and company remain considerably less vivid than their attire, an eye-popping assortment of paisley, bell-bottoms and scary lapels scrupulously assembled by costume designer Linda Cho. Holmes’ often flat and flavorless dialogue doesn’t help (Georgia to Jerzy: “It’s hard to be with someone who won’t let you in”). Nor does the play’s profusion of short scenes and bits of monologue, handled in a workmanlike manner by director Darko Tresnjak.
It’s not the fault of Harris that the play’s central character never comes into focus; he gives a scrupulous and intelligent performance. A closed-off quality is built into the role, but surely it’s possible to render a character mysterious without making him bland. Jerzy’s an enigma — we’re all enigmas! point taken! — but couldn’t he at least be a fascinating enigma?