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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
By Elyse Sommer
Besides being a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize (which author Donald Margulies has since won for Dinner With Friends, linked below), the play had an unusual history in New York. Less than a year after its limited run at Manhattan Theatre Club (see link) it opened in the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village not far from Ruth Steiner's book cluttered apartment. The chief reason for this unusual second staging of a play still too new for it to be considered a revival, was that the legendary Uta Hagen was sufficiently drawn to the role of Ruth to make her want to return to the stage. (The 79-year-old-old Hagen triumphed in the part, took the play on the road after it closed, and is currently enjoying yet another triumph in Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks which is rumored to be headed from Los Angeles to New York).
I saw both of the New York versions and links to the CurtainUp reviews of both are added below rather than to repeat plot details here. Now I've had an opportunity to see the play for the third time.
Coming to it after a three-year interval and watching it in Shakespeare & Company's beautiful new Founders' Theatre proved to be a very satisfying experience. While I knew everything that was going to happen and recognized many of the best bits of dialogue, I found the performances of Annette Miller as Ruth and Christianna Nelson as Lisa on a par with those of their predecessors. Miller, who I've never seen in a starring role, is superb, especially so in the scenes where her gestures and bearing convey as much as her words. And Nelson, no second fiddle, proves herself capable of making us sympathize with and dislike Lisa. Both women play off each other beautifully.
To my pleasure and surprise the play has aged well. In fact, with novelist David Leavitt's legal battle with Stephen Spender no longer a big literary scandal (Spender forced the withdrawal of the Leavitt novel based on his life) the basic themes have more force and wider application than ever. The dialogue that telescopes the conflict to come and the tendency to talkiness are still structural fault lines, but the sparkle of that dialogue outweighs its wordiness.
Daniela Varon, who directs, keeps the play's six scenes moving forward at a brisk pace. An upstage window in Lauren Kurki's handsome set reflects the march of time (an important thematic element) and the changing seasons. The scene which activates an event being played out in Ruth's mind is, besides being a dramatic highlight, a wonderful use of the two-tiered orchestra. As Ruth, sick in body and spirit, sits in the dark of her apartment we see Lisa standing on the rear upper seating level giving a reading of the novel based on Ruth's love affair with poet Delmore Schwartz. Minutes later Lisa knocks on the door and we hold our breath for the final confrontation.
My one quarrel with Ms. Varon is that she has not directed the actors, especially Ms. Nelson, to play to the audience members seated in the side loges. There are lengthy passages, where Nelson is allowed to sit with her back to a third of the orchestra.
From what I could gather at intermission, most people at the Founders' had never seen the play or even heard of it, so its revival by Shakespeare & Co. is especially commendable. It is a worthy addition to their repertory of modern plays -- and well worth putting on your list of must sees. Don't put it too far down the list though. The run ends August 2nd.
As a teacher and author of the just published book The Holocaust Kid, Sonia Pilcer, who occasionally writes for CurtainUp had a very personal reaction to the play:
Collected Stories 1997 premiere production
Collected Stories1998 second production with Uta Hagen
Other Donald Margulies Play Reviews
Broken Sleep (Williamstown TheatreFestival
Dinner With Friends Pulitzer Prize for Drama