In 1965, Polish-Jewish novelist Jerzy Kosinski wrote “The Painted Bird,” a novel widely seen as an autobiography of his own tragic experiences during the Holocaust. Except, it was later learned, none of the dates corresponded with the reports of his countrymen who had known him as a boy.
Besieged by charges of having created “fiction” instead of autobiography, of having plagiarized the works of other European authors who were unknown to English-speaking readers, and of having produced much of his work with the aid of ghost writers, Kosinski quickly went from being the darling of the rich and famous to something of a pariah. As if in response, some six years later, Kosinski produced “Being There,” a novel about a simple, unsophisticated gardener, Chance, whose pithy comments about gardening are taken seriously as grandiose guides to the perfect life. Peter Sellers played Chance in the subsequent film as a man who obviously believed in his patron’s maxim, “Life is a state of mind.”
As did Kosinski. And so his persona is brought to the stage in a larger-than-life characterization written by playwright Davey Holmes. The play, which is currently having its West Coast premiere at the Hayworth Theatre in Los Angeles, is called “More Lies About Jerzy,” and it presents the Polish writer as a charismatic, womanizing, self-absorbed and self-aggrandizing mythmaker, always ready with a new lie to justify an earlier one. As he says in explaining his modus operandi, you must “exploit the moment.” But playwright Holmes’ focus is on “truth,” and he portrays Kosinski as a man who, in creating himself, actually appears to believe his own fabricated memories.
It’s a sympathetic portrait of a much bedeviled man, and actor Jack Stehlin presents him with dignity, passion, and conviction — and with an egotism that engulfs the entire stage. Speaking with a Polish-inflected accent that never wavers from, Stehlin is explosive, seductive, playful, and even, paradoxically, humble — an acting tour de force that must be shared with director David Trainer and the excellent ensemble cast that brings this Kafkaesque drama to life.
Chief among them is Adam Stein who portrays the newspaper reporter from the Village Voice who brings Kosinski’s discrepancies to light and continues to badger him with self-righteous accusations and with what a kinder person would eschew as “nitpicking.”
Cameron Meyer and Kristin Malko portray several of the significant women in Jerzy’s life, Jordan Lund portrays a boyhood friend from Poland, and Chet Grissom and Neil Vipond round out the cast of assorted characters who come and go through this portion of Jerzy’s life in New York.
Set on a virtually empty stage, “More Lies About Jerzy” is backed by a series of tall panels with abstract designs painted on them, and set designer Laura Fine Hawkes and lighting designer Derrick McDaniel have made the most of the un-clutter.
But what’s best about this extraordinarily intelligent and well-written play is that it doesn’t judge its protagonist, but merely delves into the questions of truth and memory and creative invention. And it does it all in a brief 90 minutes that passes so expeditiously that you are startled when it’s over. But you can be sure it will keep you musing for many hours after the lights go down.
“More Lies About Jerzy” will continue at The Hayworth Theatre, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., in Los Angeles, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through June 26. Call (323) 960-7788 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.