Though EM Lewis’s 80-minute thriller TRUE STORY pays homage to Raymond Chandler’s detective-story and film-noir tradition of the 1930s and ‘40s, the play offers a more current (cell-phone era) exploration of the genre, combining the twists and turns of a gripping murder mystery with the profound human issues of coping with loss, assuming responsibility, the nature of truth, and the desire for justice. Passage Theatre Company’s world-premiere production, directed with wit and suspense by Damon Bonetti, succeeds in delivering all the surprises, humor, emotion, and psychology inherent in the script.
When faltering mystery novelist Hal Walker (Dan Hodge) is hired by editor Brett Martin (Judith Lightfoot Clarke) to ghostwrite the autobiography of acquitted murder suspect and wealthy real estate agent Donnie Lawrence (Joe Guzmán), the subject’s innocence becomes increasingly dubious as the writer interviews him and his teenage daughter Miriam (Alex Boyle) in their country house. But the grieving author, given to drink since the death of his wife (“I’m not an alcoholic . . . I’m a writer”), soon becomes the object of scrutiny of both Lawrence and Detective Hayden Quinn (John Jezior), as the men’s interwoven stories unfold, and they move back and forth in time and space to reveal clues about themselves and the events that impacted their shattered lives and families.
Despite some loose ends at the conclusion (without giving too much away, there are some inconsistencies about the amount of blood, and a school visit is never fully explained), the play’s structure is complex and enthralling, and Passage’s casting is spot-on, with each member of the excellent ensemble–in appropriate costumes by Katherine Fritz–bringing the right demeanor to Lewis’s characters. Hodge and Guzmán offer a compelling contrast as the unlikely and enigmatic collaborators in a game of cat-and-mouse. Whereas Donnie is cold, commanding, and defiant, Hal is a sad, haggard, and broken man, whose one solace (in a clever leitmotiv of a writer’s self-referencing) is reciting meaningful quotes from famous authors. As Hal’s editor and literary agent (and equal partner in his quotation identification game), Clarke combines the drive of a high-powered Manhattan businesswoman with the take-charge commitment of a supportive friend. Jezior has just the right look and attitude for the hardened police detective, as he investigates the case and takes the players’ conflicting statements, and Alex Boyle is a young talent to watch as Donnie’s confused daughter, trying her best to deal with the loss of her mother and the accusations against her father.
An open bi-level post-modern set design by Matt Campbell allows the ensemble to move easily through the various rooms of the house and office in full view of the audience, and to switch from one point in time to another while on stage watching each other. Effective props (Louise Grafton), evocative sound (Stefán Örn Arnarson), and dark lighting (Justin Hoffecker) further enhance TRUE STORY’S engaging air of mystery. November 7-24, 2013; passagetheatre.org.