Ten years after it debuted in Trenton, N.J., True Story, a postmodern take on the noir genre by Oregon playwright E.M. Lewis (Magellanica), comes to Portland Center Stage’s Ellyn Bye Studio (it’s produced by Artists Repertory Theatre, whose main location on Southwest Morrison Street continues to undergo renovations).
In its debut year, this play racked up five Barrymore Award nominations, including Best New Play. After several previews, True Story enjoyed its premiere May 12, with further performances to follow Wednesdays through Sundays until June 4.
Stylistically, True Story combines mid-20th century office aesthetics, music reminiscent of Hitchcock films (composed by Matthew M. Nielson), and conversations on smartphones. It stars Joshua J. Weinstein as Hal Walker, a mystery writer who has recently lost his wife, Lori, in a tragic incident.
Despite being depressed, drinking to excess and failing to meet creative deadlines, Hal is hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of Donnie Lawrence (Setareki Wainiqolo), a real estate mogul once accused, but not convicted, of killing his own wife.
Eventually, Hal’s and Donnie’s wives coalesce, with parallel descriptions of each husband’s loss making it difficult to tell which dead wife either of them is talking about at any given moment. In this way, the story expertly blurs the lines between hero and villain, while also making relevant points about the dangers of preexisting biases when it comes to justice.
The unreliability of the narration also explains certain inconsistencies. When Detective Hayden Quinn (Claire Rigsby) interrogates Hal and his editor, Brett Martin (Maria Porter), they may tell the detective they said one thing, but the narrative rewinds to a cellphone conversation, showing how they fudged the details.
Similarly, Donnie’s daughter Miriam (Sami Yacob-Andrus) introduces herself as a girl of 15, but acts more childlike, with a baggy wardrobe, precociously inappropriate questions, and a tendency to cozy up and infringe on Hal’s personal space. And while Donnie’s mansion is said to be 200 miles north of the city (implicitly New York), suggesting Vermont or the Adirondacks, later he is said to live in Connecticut.
What is consistent is the strength of the cast’s performances. As Donnie, Wainiqolo comes in friendly and jovial, but quickly puts up walls as Hal probes his unflattering and traumatic memories. Porter, meanwhile, captions Brett’s lightning-fast acerbic wit, while Weinstein brilliantly blunts Hal’s humor with drunkenness, stumbling over words and gazing at the world through red, often droopy eyes.
Following the show, director Luan Schooler presided over a toast to the cast, crew and audience. Artists Rep’s prolonged renovation may have raised concerns about its future, but as glasses were raised, so were hopes for the 2023-24 season, which will bring productions to every quadrant of the city.
SEE IT: True Story plays in the Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage, 128 NW 11th Ave., 503-241-1278, artistsrep.org/performance. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Saturday, 2 pm Saturday-Sunday, through June 4. $5-$50.