Thursday, May 13, 2010

Donald Margulies's "Collected Stories"

This tale of an older woman writer mentoring a younger one came alive only in the second act. When Lisa Morrison (Sarah Paulson) wrote about Ruth Steiner's (Linda Lavin) long ago affair with Delmore Schwartz, the mentor threatened to stop the novel from going to press. The expected questions arose. Is it morally right to use someone else's life in one's writing? Where is the line between homage and exploitation? What are the claims of gratitude to a beloved mentor?

Of all the justifications Lisa offered, the most intriguing one was that Ruth had given the story to her when she had told Lisa the story, that Ruth wanted Lisa to write it because she herself could not. I wish the playwright had pursued that line of thought, but the confrontation was diverted elsewhere. The whole exchange, the raison d'etre of the play, was somewhat repetitive and formless. Director Lynne Meadow did not help. The play's questions are my questions, but it gave off more heat than light.

TH compared the play very aptly to "Red," another play about another mentorship, one between painters. The comparison throws into stark relief the weaknesses of "Collected Stories." "Red" has a real giant of art in Mark Rothko, whereas "Collected" has to build Ruth Steiner up from scratch. "Red" is marvelously visual whereas "Collected," since it is about writers, stands or falls by its talk about a verbal art. "Red" turns from its first minutes on the question of whether Rothko will paint the Four Seasons murals. "Collected" has no such dramatic center, and so the first act plods as it sets up the relationship between the women for the quarrel in the second act. In "Red" there is real and vital disagreement about the nature of art, and the personal stuff comes out incidentally but powerfully. In "Collected," Ruth and Lisa has no disagreement about what they are doing as fiction writers. The play moves wholly in the realm of the personal.

Both Molina and Lavin were wonderful in their different ways as two very different mentors. Molina was fiery and tortured, Lavin was wry and melancholic. The younger artists, however, were not equal. Sarah Paulson was too needy to be a sympathetic character. She lacked the nobility of true aspiration. The production is still playing in the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

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