Nick Jones presents a highly unrealistic play about our obsession with so-called reality.
"It's not that I don't think you're commercial; it's just that you may not be right for this particular story," a mother tells her son in Nick Jones' Verité, now making its world premiere at LCT3's Claire Tow Theater. As this super-dark comedy makes clear, the impulse to sell (books, movie rights, your soul) is a driving force in the publishing world, and perhaps all of America's creative industries. Under the sure-footed and surprising direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel, Verité will definitely make you laugh and gasp. Unfortunately, that's not quite enough to compensate for an undercooked and contrived ending.
Jo Darum (Anna Camp) married her boyfriend, Josh (Danny Wolohan), shortly after they graduated from high school. Now they have a son, Lincoln (Oliver Hollmann), and live in the attic apartment above the home of Josh's sister Liz (Jeanine Serralles, appropriately loud and abrasive). Josh is a bus driver, while Jo mostly stays home writing a fantasy novel about dragons. Josh doesn't really respect her work and wishes she would get a real job. When she is offered a $50,000 advance from goofy Scandinavian publishers Sven Kandetty (Robert Sella) and Andreas Venler (Matt McGrath), she finally sees an opportunity to start pulling her weight.
But there's a catch: They don't want her fantasy novel. They want her to write a memoir and they want it to feature "bold characters making interesting choices." Does marrying your high school sweetheart count as "interesting"? When she randomly runs into Winston (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), an old secret admirer with a mysterious business in Colombia, she sees an opportunity to take her story in an exciting new direction with a torrid affair. Is she doing it for her art, or is that just an excuse to get away from a life that has turned out to be profoundly disappointing?
Jones never puts his thumb on the scale either way, but it's difficult to walk away without an opinion. As brilliantly embodied by Wolohan, Josh is a New York Post-reading philistine jerk. In contrast, Moss-Bachrach's Winston is a scruffy, sensitive dreamboat. Who wouldn't want to run away to Colombia? It's not even necessary to relate with Jo in order to understand her decision-making process, which is a good thing because as portrayed by Camp, she's pretty unlikable.
Camp's Jo is a homecoming queen whose best days are behind her. She oscillates recklessly between wide-eyed naïveté and incredulity. We can never tell if she's the author of the drama in her life, or if there really is, as an increasingly paranoid Jo contends, a vast conspiracy cooked up by the publishing house to create the "reality" that will become her internationally best-selling memoir.
It helps that Stuelpnagel directs this play like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Andrew Boyce's untrustworthy set creates space out of the unlikeliest places. Just when you think he can't reveal another secret room, he does. McGrath and Sella are hilarious and disorienting as the Norse editors, popping out of the set in strange and unexpected ways. Moss-Bachrach is a very talented actor playing a very talented actor. There are so many layers to his performance that we're never fully able to unpack them, creating one of this play's great mysteries. One thing is clear: We hang on every word he says (including an overly long monologue about a journey through the Colombian mountains), so it's perfectly understandable that Jo does too.
You'll likely enjoy many hearty chuckles at the way Jones eviscerates artistic clichés, like the contradictory obsessions with marketability and "the truth." A current wave of reality books, movies, and television shows might lead one to believe that Americans are fascinated by realistic portrayals of the human condition. Jones scoffs at this notion, making it clear everyone is really looking for a heaping helping of artfully crafted lies. Certainly, Alex Malarkey's recent admission that he completely fabricated his best-selling memoir, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, is a testament to that. It makes this play seem ripped-from-the-headlines relevant.
Unfortunately, Jones' witty send-up of our obsession with faux reality is, itself, undermined by an abrupt ending that feels like a tremendous amount of wishful thinking. I'll offer no spoilers here, except to predict you'll leave the theater scratching your head. Fiction is fine, but not if we're unable to suspend our disbelief.