Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Collected Stories is a quiet and somewhat predictable play. It is also filled to the brim with ideas and strong dialogue and adds another feather in the cap of the consistently articulate and provocative playwright Donald Margulies. The playwright is blessed to have a solid director, Lisa Peterson, at the helm; and two virtuoso interpreters of his characters, Maria Tucci and Debra Messing. Their eloquent, flesh and blood portrayals give the play the human dimension without which it could easily sink into the trap of all talk, no feeling. There are times when it does anyway.
While this is not a light evening, it is nevertheless entertaining for anyone interested by in the kind of theater that leaves you talking about the characters you've met and the questions their story raises. Obviously, there are enough such theater goers around for the play to have extended to an open run, giving us an opportunity to play catch-up with this three-weeks- past-opening review.
At the crux of the play's six scenes--played out over as many years-- is the relationship between Ruth Steiner, (Maria Tucci), an older somewhat curmudgeonly academic who's also a renowned short story writer, and Lisa Morrison, (Debra Messing), an ambitious would-be writer. Not surprisingly, the disciple not only surpasses the mentor's success but does so spectacularly. Because her rise from uncertain student to cool literary star stems from a novel based on a romantic interlude in the teacher's life, we quickly see that Collected Stories is also a microscope for examining honor and betrayal, aging and waning power and the literary process.
The underlying issue of a young protégé's success niggling at the mentor's anxieties about age and its concomitant loss of power is of course not an unexplored territory. That perennial late-night and video store best renter, All About Eve, has made that title an allusion for this type of stagestruck admirer-exploiter situation. The character of Quincy Quince in Wendy Wasserstein's An American Daughter is a now generation scavenger of Wasserstein's own generation's feminist ideals. Her bending the feminist ideals to her own appetite for mega-success as a spokesperson for "new" feminists can also be compared to Lisa Morrison's appetite for being in the forefront of the literary playing field staked out by " the big boys" she admires.
While I'm on this comparison, the Quincy Quince character also posed some less fully explored conflicts within the man who's her professor and the key character's husband. As he seemed perfectly supportive of his wife's move up the Washington ladder of success, it was his inadvertent (?) slipup that led to the media circus that aborted her nomination as Surgeon-General. And, as he seemed genuinely proud of his former student Quincy's fame, he referred self-deprecatingly and frequently to his own no longer read book. In Collected Stories we have an undefined illness to dramatize how the student moth's emergence as a butterfly embodies an inevitable contrast to the waning powers of the successful mentor--what Shakespeare called "Winter's ragged hand." This also heightens the teacher's sense of betrayal.
The whole issue surrounding the creative process generally and the literary process specifically is tricky. The playwright has been quoted as being inspired by the David Leavitt/Stephen Spender legal hassle that ended with Leavitt's book being withdrawn. In the Leavitt case, the author was accused of actually lifting Spender's words from a printed memoir. Another play reviewed earlier in the season, Another Part of the House raised the questions in my mind about whether Migdalia Cruz's "new" play was indeed new or an ill-conceived re-write of a playwright who served as her inspiration.
In Ruth and Lisa's situation there's no question of plagiarism but one of whether a life confided to a friend is fair grist for that friend's creative muse. Is the student repaying the mentor with a stab in the back or merely being what Saul Bellow in a recent interview about the writer's craft calls a "good observer?"
In the final analysis it's hard to take sides in this passing of the talent torch drama since Ruth and Lisa are painted in neutral shades rather than right and wrong primary colors. Both are flawed and quirky. Tucci beautifully illuminates the vulnerability beneath her crusty exterior. Messing remains perfectly believable and, yes, likeable, as she navigates from insecure wannabe to cool success.
A few loose ends. Thomas Lynch's setting which is a bibliophile and clutterbug's dream come true also made me feel less guilty about never getting around to putting my book shelves in order. Is this a play strictly for literary types? It is, in the sense that it tosses out a lot of literary "insider" names and probably assumes you're familiar with the Leavitt-Spender brouhaha. But then again if you've ever had a friend pay you the questionable compliment of quoting something you said as if it were his or her own, you can identify with the "creative appropriation" issue.