Jay Reiss’ “That May Well Be True,” making its world premiere at Hudson Mainstage, is an angry and penetrating exploration of friendship ruined by resentment and jealousy. Reiss has a knack for writing hostile confrontations and charging every scene with suspense. But the production is also clearly intended to be humorous, and the author’s witty lines would be funnier if directed in a freer, less sober style.
Adversarial tension is sparked when novelist Peter (Josh Weinstein) fights a plagiarism lawsuit instituted by his old pal Russell (Daniel Milder), a former drug addict. Russell had wild experiences in Mexico that Peter utilized for a new bestseller, and he wants $700,000 of the fee promised to Peter for his screenplay of the novel. When Peter shows up unexpectedly at Russell’s Westchester apartment to hash out the problem, lifetime grievances are aired that aggravate their bitterness.
Prominent in the mix is Russell’s roommate Joy (Erin Quinn Purcell), an economist who has been hired to counsel an Indian ashram on how to increase its profits. Russell amusingly defines their relationship as similar to a marriage (“We eat together, we bicker in front of friends, and we don’t have sex”).
Portraying Peter, Weinstein conveys the right blend of integrity and self-interest. Milder is a courageous, high-strung actor, and his Russell is a realistic portrait of self-destruction. What upsets the balance in the contest between the two is his exasperating, unlikable attitude: It’s hard not to repudiate him even when his viewpoints are justified. An occasional inspired line (“If it wasn’t for me, you’d still be listening to Phil Collins and defending it”) softens him, but it’s not enough to make us care about his fate.
The production is at its best during a scene between Peter and Joy. Director Greg Jackson carefully establishes a potentially romantic link between them, and their relationship is so winningly developed that the play falters after their connection is dropped. This portion also features the evening’s most inventive bit, when Joy lists her albums of love songs by people who can’t sing — Burt Reynolds, Tony Randall, Lorne Greene, Ed McMahon, Pele and William Shatner doing “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
The final stages of combat between Peter and Russell consist of a vividly staged physical battle and criticisms flung in titular game “That May Well Be True.” These accusations stir up frenzied emotion, although a hint that Russell and Joy may go from platonic to passionate is unconvincing. The climax, in general, would resolve more excitingly with a surprise twist. As it is, events trail off inconclusively, suggesting that the author couldn’t quite devise a proper ending.
Purcell’s Joy is the evening’s most notable element. The quietly commanding actress suggests a personality of depth and compassion. Joy is a character who can truly be called original, imaginative enough to indicate that Reiss, though a raw playwriting talent, has a solid theatrical future.