Collected Stories Connects
Ruth Steiner, an author so renowned that she gets called on to testify in front of congressional committees that discuss funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, is yelling from the window of her Greenwich Village apartment to someone on the sidewalk below. We know from her muttering and fumbling at the sash that she's eccentric and cantankerous, and proud of it. Into her cluttered and intensely personal space irrupts a student from her class at Columbia, Lisa Morrison, who's come for a tutorial. The girl is all over the place: worshipful, puppylike and deferential yet oddly invasive. Seated on the couch, Ruth goes over Lisa's short story, "Eating Between Meals," with her. She offers a judicious mix of criticism and praise, introduces her to mandelbrot -- which she humorously terms Jewish biscotti -- and grudgingly concedes that the young woman just may have talent.
Lisa becomes Ruth's assistant, and in the play's six scenes (echoing the six years covered by the action), we see the relationship evolve. Lisa, who weeps like a scolded toddler when Ruth accuses her of messing up some papers at the beginning of the relationship, becomes Ruth's protegé, a friend who feels free to correct her one-time mentor, a companion and eventually both a rival and Ruth's surrogate daughter. The women discuss love and literature; they also bicker over trivial topics such as Woody Allen's relationship with Soon-Yi Previn: Allen didn't see a moral dilemma in this love affair because he didn't want to, Ruth comments acidly. So tightly constructed is Donald Margulies's play that eventually this comment, like almost every other apparently inconsequential observation we've heard, serves a purpose.
Collected Stories was a Pulitzer finalist. (Margulies eventually won the award for his Dinner With Friends.) It's a clever, knowing play that balances New York savvy and genuine feeling.
Since Collected Stories deals with the process of writing, it's necessarily somewhat self-referential. It also brings up issues at the core of the writer's work. These include the superficial -- the difficulties of breaking into the profession, the way the publishing world routinely values sexy youth over mature talent, the envy between practitioners -- and the profound: What is the wellspring of literary inspiration? Writers make stories, and like magpies stealing anything that shines, they're attracted to plot details and zesty bits of dialogue wherever these can be found, whether they're on the news, overheard in conversation and, most dangerously, in their own lives and the lives of relatives and friends. Writers often hurt the feelings of their intimates. And it goes deeper than hurt feelings. Taking someone's narrative is, in a sense, a theft of that person's very essence. But writers have argued that the feelings of family and friends must give way to the needs of their art. In this culture, there are racial and gender concerns, too: Is it permissible for a white person to use the imagery of Native American myth? Can a male author validly assume the persona of a female rape victim?
Ruth and Lisa are rich characters, and as you watch them battling through these issues in the play's intense final scene, you find yourself empathizing with each in turn. You marvel at how well matched they've become as antagonists, even as you grieve for their shattered relationship. You can see how Lisa's ambition overcame her judgment, how Ruth's righteous indignation is fueled not only by jealousy, but by an acute sense that her time is over and her reputation vulnerable. You find yourself reevaluating their earlier interactions: Lisa's hands on Ruth's books and papers -- weren't they greedy as well as worshipful? Is she like the child in her own short story, whirling in circles, filled with a passion for fame and not caring how many jars she smashes in the process of getting it?
In the Mizel Center Theatre Company production, Collected Stories is well-served by two excellent performances. Heather Nicolson is a terrific Lisa, full of energy, charm and intelligence. Patty Mintz Figel perfectly captures Ruth's persona; she has the voice and the intonations down pat. I thought I sensed a little insecurity in her performance on opening night -- Ruth Steiner is extremely aware of her place in the literary firmament -- but I imagine that vanished in subsequent performances. And though Figel beautifully conveyed Ruth's pain at the end, I'd like to have seen her a little less tearful. What time hasn't stolen from Ruth has been stolen by her beloved protegé, and that seems to me a grief that would go deeper than tears. But these are minor cavils.
If the actresses make barely a misstep, the production itself does have a few problems, though they're not enough to derail the evening. Director Billie McBride hasn't thoroughly researched the play's milieu. Mandelbrot is crispy, sometimes rock hard, but in the first scene, Ruth seems to be sharing a crumbly cookie with Lisa. It's also difficult to believe this woman would feed her student with her fingers instead of putting the snack on a plate. The costumes also need attention. To convince us that Lisa's got that New York-literati look down pat, her black pantsuit needs to be smarter and fit better. Most important, the set is all wrong. It's appropriately comfortable and cluttered, but Ruth wouldn't tack an unframed print to her wall like a college student or tolerate a dime-store basket of artificial flowers. Above all, when she hurls the contents of her desk to the floor in a rage, we shouldn't see a copy of Redbook peeking up at us. And the sentimental music used to underline the play's ending is distracting.
Nonetheless, this is a production that speaks to the audience. I've witnessed a lot of standing ovations. You have to wonder how sincere they are, however, when you hear the same people who've just been on their feet discussing where to go for drinks in the lobby seconds later. In what seemed to me a far deeper tribute, groups of people congregated after Collected Stories to discuss the play's meaning and the issues Ruth and Lisa had been arguing. I even saw a couple of tear-glazed faces.
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