This West Coast premiere of David Holmes fascinating drama about whether truth lies in facts or in fiction hangs on the title performance of Jack Stehlin as Jerzy Lesnewski obviously based on the late Polish novelist-screenwriter Jerzy Kosinski, and the scandals surrounding what he eventually claimed was his fictional Holocaust memoir, The Painted Bird. Either by omission or design, Kosinski neglected to clarify at the outset that the memoir was anything but autobiography until, according to Holmes, Poles from his past (Jordan Lund and Cameron Meyer) showed up in New York, peeved that the famous author was discrediting the very people who had protected young Jewish Jerzy from the Nazis. Aside from a swirl of wives and mistresses (Meyer and Kristin Malko) orbiting the womanizing author, the play drives along the investigation by journalist Arthur Bausley (Adam Stein) once a fan and eventually an investigator clearly troubled by Jerzys continuing penchant to play fast and loose with the facts. They wont ask if he lying, Arthur goads him, Theyre only going to ask why is he lying. Holmes plays just as nimbly with the facts as Kozinski did, which would be an affront if Holmes were really out to discredit his protagonist, as the Village Voice did in 1982. (That discrediting is a central issue in the play, which anachronistically unfolds between 1972 and 1974.) In the Voice, Geoffrey Stokes and Eliot Fremont-Smith published an article accusing the five-time best-selling author not only of having denied co-authorship or editor credit to the English translators, who may have actually written The Painted Bird, based on Kozinski writings in Polish, but they also claimed that Kozinski plagiarized his short story (made into film), Being There, from 1932 Polish best seller The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma which few people outside Poland knew about. Holmes Jerzy has a potent defense and an almost tragic downfall made all the more so by Stehlins gregarious, petulant and charismatic interpretation, with just the right tinge of Polish dialect. Argues Jerzy: Truth does not lie in facts but in symbols and myths and legends an argument he could have lifted from W.B. Yeats, who said much the same. Holmes journalist tries to psychoanalyze why Jerzy would make stuff up so habitually perhaps a war trauma or something and Jerzy ridicules that process as petty psychoanalysis. The degree to which Jerzy may be right is the degree to which this play gets very interesting, veering from its dangerous trajectory of celebrity bashing. David Trainer directs an efficient production with enough momentum to compensate for its tangled relationships. But its the play, and Stehlin, that are stage center. And speaking of truth, they probably shouldnt clink those plastic champagne tumblers when toasting. That rings even less true than many of Jerzys excuses. Circus Theatricals at the Hayworth, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through June 26. (323) 960-7788.
Saturdays, 8 p.m. Starts: May 15. Continues through July 24, 2010