Truth Is More Lucrative Than Fiction
Socrates and Plato, Emerson and Thoreau, Mr. Kotter and Vinnie Barbarino -- the history of Western civilization is cluttered with memorable teacher-student pairs, each bringing its unique dynamic to one of the most powerful relationships in humankind. It's no surprise that quite a few twentieth-century dramas, from Educating Rita to Oleanna, have exploited this relationship, rife as it is with passion, admiration, and abuse.
One thing that makes the friendship so interesting in Collected Stories, Donald Margulies's 1997 play, which is being given a superb production at the Caldwell Theatre Company, is that the mentor and protégé are not male and female, as is frequently the case in contemporary plays in which heterosexual politics is a theme. Here both characters are women. Ruth, a well-known short-story writer and creative-writing teacher at Columbia University, and her adoring student Lisa are not lovers, but that doesn't keep Lisa from wanting to crawl into Ruth's skin. Summoned for a tutorial to Ruth's book-lined intellectual warren of an apartment in Greenwich Village, Lisa is worshipfulness personified. The young would-be fiction writer is so distracted by the prospect of getting individual attention from her heroine that she can barely hear what Ruth has to say about her story, which bears the achingly timely title "Bulimia in the Suburbs."
Long before Ruth (Pat Nesbit) tells her she has the right stuff, Lisa (Kathy Tyrell) begs to become her assistant, which entails answering the phone and handling correspondence. (On Tim Bennett's well-appointed set, Ruth apparently composes the short stories that made her famous on a '70s-era electric typewriter.) The play unfolds across six years in six short scenes, beginning with Lisa's first visit and following the arc of the women's friendship, which develops as Lisa publishes her own first story, then goes on to experience increasing literary success.
Conveniently Lisa's star rises just as Ruth's is starting to fade. The drama, such as it is, comes about when Ruth discovers that Lisa has used Ruth's account of her youthful affair with poet Delmore Schwartz in the '50s as the basis for a first novel. By this time, six years into the relationship, we've seen Ruth go from being Lisa's professor to becoming her colleague. As Lisa grows more sure of herself, Ruth succumbs to illness as well as to a creative wasting-away. By the time she allows Lisa to read and comment on one of the stories she's writing, Ruth is becoming physically withdrawn and weak.
It doesn't help matters that Lisa thinks Ruth's new story doesn't work. She complains that the author has left unresolved the relationship between its two women protagonists. Margulies means this discussion to foreshadow what will happen between his two dramatic subjects. But a truer signal of where the playwright is heading comes to us in Lisa's declaration that her mentor's writing has turned sentimental, because Collected Stories is nothing if not driven by unwieldy emotions.
When Ruth discovers that Lisa's novel is based on her youthful romance, what ensues is an argument over who owns the story. Are fiction writers able to "steal" bits of other people's lives? When Lisa was still an impressionable student, Ruth told her that "all writers are scavengers." Or do some writers have a bigger claim on some material? When Ruth protests that Lisa has betrayed her, Lisa points out that Ruth appropriated the lives of other people -- welfare mothers, for example -- as material for her most well-regarded stories. Does it matter who tells a story, or does "artistic license" mean that any writer can take any material and shape it as she sees fit?
All interesting questions, of course, considering that visual artists of all sorts use the same scenes, even the same models, repeatedly. Think how many painters have rendered their own versions of the Eiffel Tower, for example. Why should the situation be different for fiction writers?
Margulies has said that the inspiration for Collected Stories is the suit that British writer Stephen Spender filed against David Leavitt, whose 1993 book While England Sleeps bore a striking resemblance to Spender's autobiography. (Spender won.) But Margulies has not been able to fashion the discussion into a compelling dramatic debate.
What bothered me is that the argument is filtered through the point of view of Ruth, who, in the first five scenes of the play, is outlined as someone who would approve of a writer using any material she finds. As written by Margulies and marvelously fleshed out by actress Pat Nesbit, she seems a woman utterly without contradictions, and for her to develop such a significant one so late in the play seems like a betrayal of the character.
Something also doesn't ring true about the way Margulies draws the relationship between these two women. Just what does Ruth get out of the friendship with Lisa, for example, and why does it take her four years to let her protégé read one of her works in progress? Rather than watching their friendship develop, we see only their careers wax (in the case of Lisa) and wane (Ruth). Ruth's literary stock falling as Lisa's grows makes for a contrived situation, one that doesn't allow for the possibility that Ruth can write her own version of her years spent with the poet.
Ruth and Lisa live in a hermetically sealed writers' universe, authentically reproduced here, in which their concerns revolve only around dreams of literary fame, readings at the 92nd Street Y, and reviews in Publishers Weekly. Margulies himself seems to live there, too. His best-known work, The Loman Family Picnic, is a bizarrely entertaining revision of Death of a Salesman. Sight Unseen, another play from the early '90s, is about a painter's relationship with his talent. In Collected Stories he has written snippets, which we hear read aloud, of Lisa's stories, brilliantly showing us both the awkwardness of her student writing and the developing voice that Ruth rightly wants to encourage.
In creating Ruth Margulies has given us a mature woman seldom seen on theater stages: a middle-age writer who is self-assured, opinionated, smart, and a professional success. Margulies bows to cliché only by having her remain single and alone. Wouldn't a woman bold enough to attract Delmore Schwartz also attract other partners? Although the character is not without problems, Ruth is a marvelous part for an actress (Uta Hagen played it in New York; Helen Mirren is about to take it on in London). Caldwell audiences are lucky to be able to see Nesbit, who gives a searing and fascinating performance. Because Ruth isn't given to large gestures (making tea for Lisa is about expansive as she gets), Nesbit's brilliance lies in her small moments, her line readings, the precision of her physical inflections. As Ruth becomes ill, the actress nearly seems to fade away.
As Lisa, Kathy Tyrell is less compelling but only by degrees. If the changes her character goes through aren't entirely believable, it's because the playwright has made her something of an impetuous young plot device. (Debra Messing, now starring in TV's Will and Grace, played this part against Maria Tucci in the play's 1997 debut at the Manhattan Theatre Club.)
The production, helmed by Caldwell artistic director Michael Hall, has only one wrong note. Oddly it's the wardrobe. Ruth looks suitably academic in her long skirts and colorless tops, but Lisa, dressed in baggy pants and schmatalike tops is far from the image of a creative-writing student. Hasn't she heard of artistic black? At any rate she needs quick help. I hear Tama Janowitz's latest novel is a bust. Maybe she's available as a wardrobe consultant.
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