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People love to forgive the factual errors that crop up in plays. "It's a show," the usual argument runs, "not a history book. Who cares if the facts are wrong so long as it's a good story?" When trivial, these lapses are merely funny—my favorite recent one was The Dead's "The words [to this song] are by the poet Michael William Balfe." Balfe was a composer, and the words are by somebody else, but what the hell, it's only a crummy Broadway musical. Sometimes such lapses are a mere matter of verbal slippage: A colleague reminded me the other day that a character in David Grimm's Kit Marlowe used the word "mesmerizing"—an intriguing anachronism, since Franz Anton Mesmer (who knew Mozart) was born nearly a century and a half after Marlowe's death. On the other hand, Grimm's flamboyant script reveled in its own Marlovian liberties; besides, the Elizabethans were a prescient bunch: After all, Shakespeare himself had Hotspur say, "This is no world to play with Mamets."

Shakespeare, in fact, is often the linchpin of the argument in favor of error: Richard III didn't really kill those kids, the stock defense runs, but Willie got a good play out of it, so who cares? To which the sensible reply is that most Elizabethans believed Richard of Gloucester had had the young princes murdered in the Tower: Shakespeare was addressing what the critic Norman Rabkin, in one of the saner 20th-century studies of his work, defined as "the common understanding." When dealing with matters of fact, Shakespeare only wrote what he and his contemporaries understood to be true.

Quentin Crisp and Jerzy Kosinski were both characters distinctive enough to have found a place in the Shakespearean universe. It's easy to imagine old Will inventing Crisp as a peacetime blend of Thersites and Patroclus. Kosinski would be harder: Unless he had tried to put himself forward on the political stage, as a slippery Mark Antony or a deep-revolving Buckingham, he would have progressed no further than a sort of literary Autolycus. It took the theater 300 more years for the self-convincing intellectual con artist to find a suitable role, Wedekind's Marquis of Keith. A consummate actor by nature—he is very convincing as Zinoviev in the movie Reds—Kosinski might have played Wedekind's manipulative culture-climber to perfection. I knew both Crisp and Kosinski very slightly—well enough to get a clear picture of the way each worked, but not to add anything material to their respective biographies.

Acting Crisply: Bette Bourne in Resident Alien.
photo: Joan Marcus
Acting Crisply: Bette Bourne in Resident Alien.

Details

Resident Alien
By Tim Fountain
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street 212-460-5475

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By Davey Holmes
Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street 212-353-0303

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In many ways, Crisp, the more virtuous and seemingly simpler soul, was also the more perplexing paradox. A celebrity of the era when, as he himself pointed out, you didn't need any accomplishments to become a celebrity, he was so plainly just what he seemed that I could never fully understand the world's desire to read more into him. He did have a kind of talent, in that he observed things sharply and articulated them clearly, but they were mostly things that had been observed and articulated before; his special quality was to express them with no axe of intentionality to grind. Things were what they were, and he said so; that's all. Proof that nature abhors a vacuum, he spoke to fill the conversational space, with no particular agenda except to keep the time amusing until his time was up. You might say he was the first Beckettian celebrity. The things he said were sometimes contradictory—he was remarkably well-read for a man who said, "Books are for writing, not for reading"—but if anyone had pointed this out to him, he would merely have replied that life was full of contradictions and that he, at least, was frank about them.

Tim Fountain's Resident Alien comes with the seal of authenticity: The script, prepared and performed in England while Crisp was still alive, had his approval, and is largely compiled from things he said. Neil Patel's set is an angled box that gives every audience member a full view of the tiny, cramped, rooming-house cubicle on East 4th Street where Crisp spent most of his later years. Like a grungy mirror image of Full Gallop's Diana Vreeland, Crisp waits for two English visitors to take him to lunch, where they are to discuss recording him on a Web site for posterity—a "kind of virtual obituary." Like Vreeland's expected dinner guest, Crisp's luncheon hosts never materialize. He snacks alone on a depressing fried egg, endures the agony (heightened by a crippled left hand) of switching from seedy bathrobe to his characteristic street wear and back, disposes of dead mice dropped in his mail slot by a hostile upstairs neighbor, all the while keeping up a nonstop rattle of apothegmatic Crispiana, though nobody else is in the room. He sketches his past, divagates on politics, and explains the proper way to live your life—although, as he says, "It's like receiving advice from a doctor who's more ill than you are."

Indeed, Beckett's the word. Crisp's no-nonsense, at-the-edge life—asked how he's stayed alive so long, he answers, "Bad luck"—more than once suggests a sort of Crisp's Last Tape. Like Krapp or Winnie, he bears a degree of now-useless carryover from his middle-class upbringing: political passivity, linked to an adoration for right-wing leaders with "style"; squeamishness about fellatio ("so disgusting I couldn't bear it."); faith in the stability offered by a class system. "I come from a time," he says, "when there was so little liberty that if a girl wanted to wear nail varnish she had to leave home for good." A pretty funny remark from someone who grew up in the time of Bloomsburyites, Fabians, and Bright Young Things, when I suspect a lot of English girls varnished their nails without getting their pictures turned to the parlor wall.

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