Jared Harris and Gretchen Egolfin More Lies About Jerzy.
(Photo:  Carol Rosegg)
Jared Harris and Gretchen Egolf
in More Lies About Jerzy.
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
It isn't just trapeze artists who walk the high wire. Storytellers do it all the time when they walk that fine line between fact and fiction. Lean too far in the wrong direction and the fall is fast and hard. Consider, for instance, the fictional case of Jerzy Lesnewski, the protagonist of More Lies About Jerzy by Davey Holmes. In this provocative new play at the Vineyard Theatre, we discover what happens when an author appropriates events in the lives of others, then writes about them and calls them his own.

If this sounds suspiciously like the true story of Jerzy Kosinski, whose book The Painted Bird came under similar scrutiny, it is obviously not a coincidence. By the end of the play, however, you will find that it also is finally and fundamentally irrelevant. Writing a play about the creation of art out of a real life and then using a real life as the basis of the fiction is an intellectualized version of Victor/Victoria!, in a sense: More Lies About Jerzy is reality posing as fiction posing as reality. It isn't a musical, but the writing sure sings.

When we meet our protagonist, Jerzy Lesnewski (Jared Harris), he is a literary lion at the top of his celebrity; he has just won the National Book Award for his autobiographical novel Vantage Point, and this bestseller is on the verge of being made into a movie. The book is the tale of a Jewish child in Poland, separated from his parents during World War II, who must survive any way he can in the turmoil of the Holocaust. It's a compelling story, but a journalist and his fact checker have come across some inconsistencies; Lesnewski's personal story and the events recounted in the book do not exactly match up.

As the play progresses, the journalist and the fact checker both search for the truth, each with wildly different motives. Meanwhile, Lesnewski is also being challenged over the authorship of his book; an off-stage character claims he rewrote vast portions of Lesnewski's prose, and the Authors' Guild is investigating. In other words, the walls are closing in on a writer who may or may not be a sham. Ironically, however, the very people whose life experiences he might have stolen appear to be the least upset. They received no credit, no acknowledgement of any kind; but they've also seen the facts of their lives turned into art. Perhaps even great art.

Holmes has written a deeply resonant play that works on the level of psychological drama. It features an engagingly complicated plot in which the discovery of facts, as well as the discovery of character, imbue the text with subtlety and style. Director Darko Tresnjak keeps the tension alive and sparking throughout with a driving pace. He also has a willingness to push for the flamboyant gesture. This works because Jerzy is a flamboyant character, and his story--whether true or false--is operatic in its size and scope.

That sense of scope is fully captured by Jared Harris' kaleidoscopic performance as Jerzy; he not only barks his lines in a thoroughly convincing Polish/American accent, he struts and stalks with much élan before the character begins to disintegrate. By the end of the play, he has displayed more colors than the exquisite, finely detailed costumes of Linda Cho. Jerzy has two lovers, but actresses Gretchen Egolf and Lizbeth Mackay aren't quite up to Harris' standard. More impressive is Boris McGiver, who embodies the role of a fiercely honest man from Jerzy's village in Poland. And Portia Reiner quite effectively portrays a young girl from the author's past.

More Lies About Jerzy is more than a psychological drama; it echoes insistently on issues of art, fame, and morality. These are themes that aren't prone to an easy summation like "Print the legend," that famous line at the end of John Ford's classic movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But More Lies About Jerzy isn't after the so-called "truth," or even the kind of art that is sometimes squeezed out of truth. Rather, it concerns the half-truths that are the real stuff of life.