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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.
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.
So, certainly, did any number of English boys, including Crisp himself and subsequently Bette Bourne, who plays him. The contrast is intriguing: Bourne, a gifted and skillful actor, immerses himself thoroughly in the character—precisely what Crisp, being the character already, never needed to do. No actor at all—I reviewed his Lady Bracknell—he tended to speak in an almost uninflected stream of low-toned words, which Bourne, by training and instinct, can’t help but theatricalize, however slightly, under Mike Bradwell’s direction. Not that one would prefer monotone mimicry of Crisp; the paradox is simply that more comes out equaling a tad less. At the same time, Bourne’s own presence strengthens the evening, which will gratify and inform many hundreds of people who never saw Crisp. And a good part of Resident Alien‘s low-temperature feeling, after all, comes from the chill Crisp’s own unemphatic clarity could give to any proceedings: His was less a life-affirming than an existence-noting spirit. But this, too, was a mark of his originality: He was never one iota less or more than himself. And it’s no dispraise of Bourne to say that, by definition, no one else could be exactly that.
In a sense, anyone could be Kosinski, for no one—I expect not even he—knew who he really was. Tall, lean, and elegantly dressed, he always reminded me of Thomas Mann’s confidence man Felix Krull, even before I realized the extent to which his writing was the product of other people’s efforts. Davey Holmes’s More Lies About Jerzy tells a story not unlike Kosinski’s, centered on one of his more outrageous plagiarisms—he transcribed into a novel the diary of a woman with whom he was having an affair, later returning to her not the diary itself, but a Xerox with key passages blacked out. In these scenes, Holmes, who has promise and imagination, catches something of Kosinski’s quietly manipulative tactics. Unhappily, the play he builds on this incident tends to replace the fascinating reality with all too familiar movieland tropes. The writer who exposes this fictive Jerzy isn’t a smart, objective old hand (like the actual exposer, this paper’s Geoff Stokes), but a novice Times staffer with a secret crush on the girl whose diary “Jerzy Lesnewski” has annexed; the cool, impassive Kosinski—perhaps merged with the more recently challenged Holocaust memoirist Benjamin Wilkomirski—becomes a nerve-racked creature, haunted by ghosts from the childhood he’s rewritten.
Much of this is frankly hokey stuff, abetted by the heavy hand of Darko Tresnjak’s production, which leans to plodding blackouts at scene endings, unwisely casts weak actors in the weakly written roles of Jerzy’s opponents, and encourages Jared Harris, in the title role, to overplay a thickly neurotic defensiveness that would make anybody peg him as a phony; the real Jerzy was a considerably slicker act. Tresnjak’s virtues, though, are real, like Holmes’s potential. He gets a first-class performance from Boris McGiver as the Polish homeboy with the goods on Jerzy, and two really superb creations from Lizbeth Mackay, as Jerzy’s ongoing lover, and Gretchen Egolf as the diary-keeper. Clearly, both Holmes and Tresnjak are too interested in emotional truth to fathom the psyche of a con artist like Kosinski. His facts will have to wait for another telling.