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2005_11_arts_broken.jpg How many ways can a story be told to reach the same outcome? How many versions of “the truth” are there, and which one should we believe? This aren’t questions aimed at evoking current affairs, they’re just inevitably on your mind during and after Broken Journey, Glyn Maxwell’s new play being given a striking interpretation by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, with direction by Ted Altschuler. The story, as you might guess, is based on Kurosawa’s landmark 1950 film Rashomon, itself inspired by a story by Akutagawa, but Maxwell has deftly updated the situation and the cast make the production thoroughly their own. It drags a teensy bit at times because of slight overwriting and because the extremely wide theater space robs the show of some of the intimacy and urgency that it might have had. Still, the first-rate acting and the considerable pleasures of Maxwell’s words, even in excess, make Broken Journey both intellectually fascinating and enjoyable to watch.

2005_11_arts_journey.jpg It's been awhile since I actually saw Rashomon, but after brushing up on the basics about the classic it was much clearer how anchored in it this play actually is, at least plot-wise. It begins with the deposition to the police by Troy (Craig Smith), a grizzled, eloquent biker dude who tells his version of what happened the previous night/early morning when he encountered a man and woman stranded on a roadside. To say here what his version is would be silly, the fun of going to the play is seeing how it and the others both clash and flow together; but I will say that Smith’s performance is excellent – intimidating and full of raw energy but also laced with believable nervous twitches. Next up is the woman, Chloe (Elise Stone) and her point of view; Stone’s acting is perhaps even more memorable, with impressive emotional toggling between terror, seething anger, and drunken giddiness. Andre (Michael Surabian) plays her date, who is the one murdered; as in Rashomon, his account is given through a psychic, Mrs. Millwood (Sheila O’Malley, who makes this silly rhetorical device entertaining and even close to believable, which is no small feat). Andre – actually Andrew, we learn, whose rejection of the “w” in his name is just one of the many instances of wordplay that go on – is probably the hardest to read of all the characters, the one about whom your ideas are likely to change the most over the course of the play, and Surabian’s performance is aptly intense.

The final story comes via Paul (Joe Rayonne), a local newspaper deliveryboy who sees the whole thing – and, of course, sees it differently from any of the others. Paul’s outsider account is necessary, but his lurking on the edge of the stage the whole time comes off as contrived, and by this point you may already be straining to get your head around the first three versions, and probably forgetting exactly what happened in them, so that yet another will seem like madness. That’s the point, of course, but it could have been made even if all the accounts were wound up a tad more tightly. In addition to the sense that Broken Journey is somewhat overwritten, Maxwell – the poetry editor at The New Republic and a respected poet himself who has moved into drama – never specifically locates the action in one geographic, which wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it weren’t for the conflicting hints he does give: for example, Mrs. Millwood eats her digestive biscuits and tea, but at one point someone is described as a fan of the Green Bay Packers. Not that no Americans eat digestives or no Brits like the Packers, but there are other examples and the dissonance can be distracting. Maxwell’s obvious love of language and wordplay, too, makes for occasionally less-than-believable dialogue, but only very occasionally – for the most part Broken Journey is entrancing to listen to, with rhythms and remarks that will stick in your head just as surely as the tense stories themselves.

If you’re looking for a really fast-paced, cinematic experience in the exploration of the idea of totally conflicting claims to truth, well, you probably shouldn’t be going to a play in the first place. Maxwell does go a bit too laboriously through the whole of each character’s version of events, so that even though things aren’t really repeating, you sometimes feel that they are -- but the actors’ vivid performances make up for this in large measure. You may not be totally swept into the world of Broken Journey, but more than likely you will be thoroughly engaged by its intricate weavings of plot and the questions it raises, and duly impressed by the force with which the cast brings it to life.

Details: Broken Journey is at Theater 3, 311 W. 43rd St., 3rd Floor, through Dec. 10. Shows are Tues.-Sat. 8pm, Sun. 3pm; there are no performances Nov. 22-24. Tickets are here or call 212-352-3101.

Photo by Gerry Goodstein (NY Times).