Book review: 'The Confessions of Edward Day'

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THE CONFESSIONS OF EDWARD DAY, by Valerie Martin. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 304 pp. $25.

 

Some actors plumb their psyches to create characters from the inside, out. Others work from the outside, in, through research and perhaps just the right pair of shoes.

Edward Day, the fictional memoirist and New York actor in "The Confessions of Edward Day," prides himself on being the first type and has contempt for the others as mere mimics.

So there is something audacious, though not really convincing, about Valerie Martin's dual challenge of mimicry here. The novelist ("Mary Reilly" and the Orange Prize- winning "Property") not only attempts to research her way into the specialized, sexually liberating world of '70s theater; she also tells her story as a man.

Unfortunately, the most formative and dramatic things about Edward are recalled in the first 30 pages. As a freshman in college, he did not return his mother's calls on the night she and her lesbian lover committed suicide. As a struggling young actor, he was saved from drowning by Guy Margate, another struggling actor, who competes with Edward for "handsome white guy" roles and for the delectable Madeline - and who never lets Edward forget what he owes him.

Even during this tumultuous setup, Martin can't keep Edward from sounding like a Method-acting parody. When he combs his hair in a mirror, he tells us how Stanislavski described just such a moment. While gasping for breath in the midnight ocean, he observes himself as an ant "programmed to struggle against the forces arrayed against me." Saved from death yet embarrassed in front of his theater friends, he responds to Madeline's pitying touch by noting, without apparent irony, "As an actor, it is my vocation to reproduce such feelings at will." Looking back while writing his memoir, he explains that he recalls the touch whenever called upon to find "the outward expression of inconsolable sadness and loss."

All these actorly pronouncements could be hilarious, if only we felt Martin were being satirical. But it is unclear what she thinks about her narrator, whose voice is far more credible and consistent as a storyteller than as an observer of the theater or his own motivations.

As Edward rehearses "Sweet Bird of Youth" in summer stock and, later, "Uncle Vanya" at the Public Theater, Martin has trenchant things to say about the emotional layers of the plays. She also has a delightfully disingenuous way with authorial foreshadowing. And the name-dropping is fun - Edward takes classes with Sandy (Meisner) and is up for the new McNally (Terrence) - when an acting lesson doesn't come with it.

We suffer and celebrate as these actors get their Equity cards, tumble into one another's beds and balance their narcissism with insecurity. But blanket assertions ("there's no such thing as a reclusive actor") and stylized writing ("his boot soles were slick and could find no purchase") keep challenging our trust in Edward's reliability as a mouthpiece. Martin's descriptions of sex have the wind-on-the-curtain romanticism of a bodice ripper and, when Edward sees Guy in a nude scene, he doesn't even mention his rival's equipment. And that's one way to know these confessions are fiction.

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