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Actors take center stage in Martin's latest marvel

Menace underlies almost every moment of Valerie Martin's latest marvel, "The Confessions of Edward Day."

Set in the '70s -- "before the soybean had been tamed" -- this is a novel full of hungry young pre-Equity actors studying under such Manhattan-based greats as Stella Adler and Sandy Meisner.

It is a tale, too, about the enigma that is truth, told in the voice of Edward Day, an actor who is saved from drowning by a sinister and unpleasant fellow actor, Guy Margate, whose striking resemblance to Day is, at the very least, unsettling.

That both men are in love with the promising if neurotic Madeleine Delavergne is intrigue enough -- until the afternoon Margate says to Day, "I find myself in financial straits."

The ancient supposition here -- that Day owes Margate his life -- underpins the memoir that is the book. For Margate, of course, escalates, becoming Day's nemesis, shadow, bete noire, ever-growing threat.

"I'm not sure why this genre is so popular," Day muses of his memoir, "as nothing could be more boring than an actor's life and actors are such a self-absorbed, narcissistic lot, they're unlikely to make good narrators. . . Fortunately for my readers, this memoir is different. In this memoir something memorable actually happened."

Indeed! And Martin's plot is but part of what makes her such a rewarding author. Her gift for suspense is surpassed only by her gifts for dialogue, for description, for variety, for veracity. Not to mention her edge, her wit, her ability to make us smile at the most dire of these actors' times.

She recaptures the pre-e-mail, pre-cell phone '70s perfectly here. She takes us to Manhattan as "the Village was just entering the long period of gentrification." She fills us with thespian secrets -- like the fact that "what actors know about emotions is that they come in pairs, often in direct opposition to one another," and like the difference between audition and repertory actors:

"Repertory actors have an easy time; they're like a team of draft horses accustomed to pulling heavy loads in tandem . . . But a cast of actors chosen through auditions are more like chickens in a coop, each actor strutting the length and breadth of the limited territory, each secretly terrified yet determined to appear nonchalant."

There is a weekend at the "large Victorian beach house" of Day's friend Teddy Winterbottom. Teddy's beach house is "large, airy, swaddled with deep porches, shingled over, and trimmed with decorative flourishes. Red (is) the predominating color, the shingles a sun-faded rose, the wide-board floors gleaming cadmium, with touches of red in the furnishings, a pillow here, a slipcover there" (It is at the beach by this idyll that Day nearly drowns.)

There are wonderful summer stock descriptions as Day recalls forays outside of Manhattan to ply his trade: "The actors were lodged in small apartments in town or in cabins in the woods. Being New Yorkers they were made anxious by the proximity of so many trees, terrified of the deer and the occasional bear, and paralyzed by the swift descent of the deep, black, unilluminated nights."

There is an actors' party in Manhattan that is marred by a frightening human happening after which "the guests filed back inside, several making straight for the kitchen for refills. The talk was about who had seen what part of what had just happened. One claimed he knew nothing until the medics burst through the door and he thought, at first, it was some kind of raid."

"Jasmine, looking like some fetishist's fantasy, passed through the hall in her red dress and high heels hoisting a mop and a bucket full of bloody towels. 'I'll put this in the closet for now,' she said. 'We can deal with it later.' "

Spare with her adjectives, Martin uses only the most apt -- and this gives the book's sex scenes a rare transcendence after which, Day says, "We were quiet then while the world fell back into place."

Good as all this is, the best lies deeper as Martin asks ever more profound questions, taking us from Day's difficult childhood to Margate's instability to life discussions of what is real, unreal, what is artifice, camouflage, what is truth and what passes for truth, what is love, and what is substituted for love.

There are levels of meaning here. When Margate at last tells Day, "You owe me your life. Basically, you belong to me," we recall Day drawing a parallel to Christianity "with its emphasis on being saved, thereby acknowledging a debt." When Day and the fragile Madeleine Delavergne are both cast in Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," life begins to imitate art, or vice versa, and one is overwhelmed by the enormity of what is at stake here.

We are reminded that, earlier, Day perceived parallels between parties and plays: "A party, after all, is a kind of play," he noted. "Many plays contain party scenes. Chekhov is fond of having them offstage."

But there is "an important difference," Day concluded, between parties played onstage or offstage -- and parties played in real life: "at the latter, there's no director."

Martin is a master at this sort of counterpoint. It is how, once again, she has drawn us so willingly into her tangled -- but always welcoming -- web.

Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.

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The Confessions of Edward Day

By Valerie Martin

Doubleday

286 pages, $25

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