Vengeance Is Ours

"I'm going to tell you a lot of good things about Paul Grellong's Manuscript and the life it's being given by the Inside Out Theatre Company. I'd also like to blast the show — or at least its plot — with a few nasty criticisms, but that's going to prove more difficult. To bash this show in any detail at all would reveal too, too much about a play that relies almost entirely on unlikely plot twists and unexpected 180s for its punch. This puts me in an awkward position: I've got 860 words to come up with yet, and if I put them to any good use, I'll wind up defanging this vicious little play and ruining it for everybody. Dang.

What to do? What would the Sun-Sentinel's Jack Zink do in this situation? Oh, I know — he'd probably outline the plot and its themes in broad strokes; he'd remark on the actors' technical facility or lack thereof; he'd bitch about how ultimately inessential Grellong's script is; and then he'd finish off with either a pithy tying-it-all-together sort of statement or else a comment about Aran Graham's set. Yes: That is "The Way of the Zink," and that's what we're going to do too.

Manuscript is a metaplay, though this is not readily apparent at curtain-up. What is readily apparent is this: Two best friends are hanging out in a New York brownstone. They're college students. One of them, David (John Manzelli), is a Harvard boy, while the other, Chris (Bechir Sylvain), is a Yalie. Chris' new girlfriend, Elizabeth (Autumn Horne), is due to arrive any minute. When she does, Chris and Elizabeth will go scooting off to a ball after smoking some of David's opium (is this what Ivy League kids do?). When she finally arrives, David's awkward as hell. We know why, or at least we think we do: It's because David's an aspiring writer and Elizabeth is an up-and-coming novelist with one successful book already on the shelves. Sure, one figures, that's got to be pretty intimidating.

But none of the characters in Manuscript are the people they appear to be. Pretty soon, everything you think you know about this situation is proven wrong, and then it happens again in the second act. This is where Manuscript gets its metaness. Manzelli, Sylvain, and Horne are actors playing actors, and this conceit nearly derails the play before it even gets off the ground.

There's an obvious reason for this. While Manzelli, Sylvain, and Horne are professional thespians, their characters are not. And so when those characters get into large-scale deceit — when they try to act — they overdo it. A lot. It's appalling until you realize what's really going on, sometime after intermission. If you hang around that long, you'll forgive just about everything.

And you probably will hang around that long. Even when you're trying to figure out where this Byzantine version of daytime-television intrigue is going — and even when you're getting impatient with the endlessly chattery script for not getting you there sooner — Grellong's writing remains interesting enough to stick around for. He's got a great ear for the self-important intellectual humor tossed around by bright collegiates, and picking all of the weird literary and pop culture references out of his script can be lots of fun. He summoned up part of the old quote about how "writing about music is like dancing about architecture," and there were many more. He's also imbued Manuscript's two male characters with a healthy skepticism of political correctness. Whenever either one of them brings up any ethnic group in any context whatsoever, they jokingly accuse one another of racism, then collapse under the weight of mock liberal guilt.

Details like this add up to a strange idea: that, although Manuscript is inhabited by actors playing actors, Grellong still manages to turn them into real people. Their conversations have a naturalist flow that is devoid of the bombast and posturing that plague most plays. These are just smart kids, for the most part, having the kinds of conversations smart kids have.

John Manzelli's David Lewis is insecure, hyperactive, and endlessly acerbic. If you're a hip-hop fan, he'll remind you of the Beastie Boys' Adam Horovitz. He's possessed of a bug-eyed sort of mania that seems disconcertingly inappropriate until, late in the second act, it finally becomes apparent just how much he has invested in the goings-on in the play's brownstone. Then the jittery, clench-fisted intensity with which he's handled his previous scenes makes total sense.

Bechir Sylvain is one hell of a darts player. I know that's a silly accolade, but I've got to say it. Manuscript's first scene has him playing an onstage game of darts, and he hits bull's-eye after bull's-eye. I'm hugely impressed that the man can achieve this midperformance, and I think the guys at Carbonell should create a new category for this kind of thing. The rest of his performance is spent undergoing an interesting transformation: In the beginning, he's just a brainy, boisterous, happy-go-lucky boyfriend — completely agog, apparently, over his hip, literary love interest — and by the end, he's become believably somber, the great responsibility of his long friendship with Manzelli's David showing in his face and in his weighted, heavy gestures. Watching him move is to watch the long arc of real brotherly love traced in a human tableau, and it's the one moment of redeeming sweetness in a play otherwise made worthwhile by its own giddy viciousness.

Elizabeth Hawkins is that giddy viciousness incarnate, and Autumn Horne plays her like a sexy snake. I'd love to tell you what she's done to become so awful, but that would be giving away too much. I will tell you only this: No matter how much you like her when you first meet her, she is one evil bitch. And when she gets her comeuppance, as evil bitches often do, her basic maliciousness has been so thoroughly communicated that Horne's perfectly executed onstage meltdown elicits no sympathy whatsoever. Manuscript is basically a play about vengeance, and though it handles its subject matter in a basically amoral way — for example, it never even attempts to explain why seeking vengeance might be a bad idea or at best hopelessly sophomoric — that probably doesn't matter. Hawkins is a nasty, nasty girl, and seeing her cry is one of the best cheap thrills South Florida theater has to offer.

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Brandon K. Thorp