Need the Write Stuff? Paging Bob Balaban!

"Manuscript" is scripted with stolen moments.

Literary larceny is what playwright Paul Grellong makes book on here, turning writers into turncoats and reading the riot act to those who would pass off what is another's as theirs.

If there is a sense of irony in this iron-willed drama, it is that director Bob Balaban, a balabust of originality, is helming a play about plagiarism.

He himself laughs at the very idea. Less laughable, of course, is the notion that plagiarism is a looming literary plague, with accumulating accounts of reporters and authors afflicted with sticky-finger syndrome when it comes to others' syntax.

The sin of commission takes on some serpentine twists and turns in "Manuscript," now unfolding nightly at the Daryl Roth Theatre in New York.

In his own manuscript, the playwright has paged Boomer type characters ensnarled in their Ivy League expectations, treating morality as only an academic conceit when it comes to dealing with the real world.

And it is Balaban's degree of sophisticated artistry that helps him navigate the play's B.S. from the bona fide bombshells.

"It's all such an engaging debate," opines the director, whose close encounters with other controversial plays has helped forge him into the forefront of leading directors.

Commonplace Occurrences
If "Manuscript" borrows from and burrows into today's headlines, it's page-turning topicality is not limited to literature.

"It happens in a lot of places," avows Balaban. "Is it called plagiarism when a scientist builds on the information that comes before him to form his own theories?"

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see that skullduggery invades the Hollywood workplace, where agents are accused of "stealing" clients from one another, and even in seemingly white-bread, white-collar environs, where a casual suggestion to a conniving co-worker can be co-opted and used for his/her own advancement.

Is the new millennium providing a meal ticket for workplace warfare? "It may not be happening more these days; it may be that people just find the issue sexy now," says Balaban.

And who better to sift through the sludge of slander and pilfery than an artist whose honest take on work has taken him far.

Scion of an immigrant Midwest Jewish family whose chain of movie theaters helped establish Bob's reel frame of reference, the actor/director knows that many elements of Jewish literature are worth borrowing from – as guiding lights on how to live: "There is a very great tradition in Jewish literature and philosophy on the need to be just; the Talmud is focused on that."

Does Judaism focus more on the heinousness of stealing and pilfering than do other religions?

"Well, I don't know if it disallows plagiarism more than others; maybe there's just more guilt," he says with a laugh.

When it comes to his career, there have been many laughs along the way – Balaban's take on a network president's pomposity made his Russel Dalrimple on "Seinfeld" a preening peacock that poked fun at such executives; and his small-town theatrics helped make "Waiting for Gufman" well worth the wait for each joke.

And, most recently, Balaban and some of his celeb friends successfully took matters into their own humorous hands, playing charades, on an AMC network series Balaban created.

There also have been the serious and more somber moments: Balaban directed the explosive "The Exonerated," a theatrical reality series of searing monologues based on the true stories of those men and women mistakenly imprisoned. He also produced and acted in the film "Gosford Park," as well as appeared in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Midnight Cowboy."

Midnight comes early for the urbane cowboys of "Manuscript," who must face the fact that the pen is mightier than the sword – and maybe more painful in its paper cuts.

By the way, Bob, ever guilty of plagiarism yourself? "Well," he says sheepishly, "there was a plagiarism scandal in my high school, and a lot of people were suspended."

And when it was time for Balaban to stand before the principal, was he as good as his word – or someone else's? Was he able to steal sympathy and abscond with a lighter sentence?

"The principal said to me, 'In your case, I know you didn't plagiarize.' "

Which he didn't – but how did the principal know?

"Because," recalls Balaban, "he told me, 'Yours was the worse paper I have ever read!' "

Info to Go

"Manuscript," by Paul Grellong, with direction by Bob Balaban and starring Jeffrey Carlson, Marin Ireland and Pablo Schreiber, is being staged Wednesdays to Mondays at the Daryl Roth Theatre, 101 E. 15th St., New York. For more information, call 212-239-6200.



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