The play Lying, now at the Interart Theatre on West 52 St. in New York in a production by Blessed Unrest, is based on the memoir of that name by the controversial psychologist and writer Lauren Slater. (Not, as I initially imagined, on Sissela Bok’s pop-sociology book Lying, which made something of a splash in the ’80s.) Like Slater’s “metaphorical memoir,” Matt Opatrny’s stage adaptation is presumably mostly fact-based, but with lies (or “lies”) threaded through it. Crafty, thought-provoking, and superbly well played and staged, it incisively dramatizes the message that the stories we tell are more real than the literal truth of what has happened to us.
In a highly focused performance streaked with intelligence and controlled passion, New York newcomer Jessica Ranville plays “Lauren” as a child, adolescent and young woman with severe epilepsy, a domineering mother (played to marvelous effect by three actors at once) and weak father, and a series of doctors culminating in a corpus callosotomy – surgical separation of the brain’s left and right lobes, depicted as a harrowing, extreme measure as Act I closes leaving audience members literally gasping.
But was the operation necessary? Was it really advisable? Are the sometimes ecstatic auras Lauren continues to experience really small seizures? Did/does Lauren really even have epilepsy at all? Which experiences playing out before us truly happened? The script and inventive staging not only suggest but say flat-out that the answer is: not all by any means.
Little Lauren’s mother embarrasses and thrills her by making a spectacle of herself at the piano in a Barbados hotel bar. Kindly nuns at a special school teach Lauren to fall safely when she feels a seizure coming on. Later she has a frustrating, lopsidedly passionate affair with a famous, much older, married writer she meets at a prestigious writers’ conference her powerful prose had gotten her invited to. But the play casts doubt on how these things and others really went down, and that’s the point.
Now and then Ranville even addresses us as herself, the actor. Breaking character but not persona, she both creates and inhabits her role with a completeness that’s somehow both transformational and self-conscious. Like Ranville’s performance, the production around her is one contiguous construct, made of running and falling, wonder and hubbub, smells, ’80s pop music, and very good dancing (choreography by the director, Jessica Burr) – a cornucopia of carefully tuned theatrical artifice, the details of which I shouldn’t give away.
After the fairly frantic pace of Act I, energy flags a bit during the slower Act II, especially during a rather long AA meeting scene, which takes longer than necessary to remind us again that what others see of Lauren isn’t what Lauren “really” is. As a whole, though, Lying delivers a powerful punch to the brain, both lobes. Catch it through November 3. Tickets and info online.