Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Margulies wrote the play in the 1990s, apparently inspired by the controversy involving David Leavitt and Stephen Spender. Leavitt had written a novel called "While England Sleeps" that was closely based on accounts of a relationship Spender recounted in his autobiography, "World Within World." Spender was appalled by Leavitt's "wrongful appropriation" of the episode, and equally appalled by the novel's failings. Because Leavitt used some of the details that appeared in Spender's book, Spender was able to prevail against Leavitt's publisher, who was forced to recall all copies of "While England Sleeps" still in circulation in bookstores.
That's not exactly the story Margulies tells in Collected Stories, but it's close. (What would it mean to appropriate a story about appropriation?) The play asks some of the crucial questions that arose from the Spender/Leavitt trial: Is an artist entitled to take inspiration wherever she finds it? Should a writer be able to borrow a story from another person's life? If a friend shared intimate details about a romance with you, in confidence, over a glass of wine, would you be entitled to write and publish your own account of the story while barely veiling the identity of your friend (and her lover)? Would it make a difference if the friend who told you the story were herself a writer and might someday wish to write something based on what happened? Who owns the rights to a life? And should we be in the business of policing where artists can find their inspiration?
In the play, Lisa talks her way into a job as Ruth's personal assistant. She is great at it and the two women become friends. Ruth takes on the role of Lisa's mentor, helping her with her writing and telling her where to send her stories. They become intimate friends, sharing "everything," Ruth later observes. "Everything." One morning, Lisa announces that her story has been accepted for publication by the literary journal Grand Street. Ruth welcomes Lisa to the literary sisterhood with enthusiasm. But she also wonders aloud why, when the two share everything, Lisa neglected to tell her that she was sending out a story to Grand Street, which was not one of the publications Ruth suggested she try. And why withhold that information until the story's publication was a done deal?
Lisa in fact is somewhat dodgy. There are layers of her character that we do not see until well into the second act. But Margulies is a masterful playwright. He realizes that he cannot suddenly spring the more surprising dimensions of Lisa on us suddenly at the end, so he preps the audience by planting seeds: revealing subtle quirks, questionable remarks, and so on, that cause us to begin to question the authenticity of Lisa's behavior. We begin to doubt Lisa, but apparently Ruth does not. Thus, the problem, dramaturgically speaking, is that Ruth seems too naïve, or too gullible, for us to be convinced that she is a brilliant, penetrating writer. I am not sure what Margulies could do to solve the issue.
A second hiccup occurs when Lisa out of the blue confesses her envy for Ruth's supposedly colorful, exciting Jewish background: "You were lucky!," she tells Ruth. "You had all that rich, wonderful Jewish stuff to draw on [as a writer]. What do I have? WASP culture? Which is no culture at all." (HelloShakespeare, Milton, Hawthorne, Melville, etc.!) "Oh really?," Ruth responds. "Tell that to Cheever and Updike." She leaves out the obvious point that you cannot be that great a writer if you are unable to come up with any stories on your own. And Ruth is apparently not asking herself the even more obvious questions: Who would say such a thing, and why? Jewish cultural envy? Really? What is going on? And why is a young woman like Lisa spending almost all her time, day after day, hanging out with, well yes, a mentor, but still, a woman 40 years her senior, and asking so many questions about her life? Lisa, in fact, has been asking some curiously probing questions, including questions about whether Ruth had once had an affair with Delmore Schwartz.
There are so many interesting and intersecting issues that Margulies touches on here. Yet, one wishes that he had gone a bit deeper or explored one or two of the questions the play raises in greater depth. Lisa's reasoning is so weak, and her excuses so pathetic, that the debate ends before it starts. It is all too clear with whom the playwright's sympathies lie. Yet, Montondo is so good she convinces us that Lisa, however wrongful her choices, remains unaware of the damage she has done. Her Lisa cannot bear to acknowledge her betrayal, or perhaps she has managed to delude herself about it.
In the hands of a less intelligent and subtle actress, Lisa could easily come off as a stagey and suspicious Eve Harrington (from All About Eve, a story that inevitably comes to mind while watching Collected Stories). However, there is not a false note in Montondo's layered and nuanced portrayal. She is terrific.
Bearmon Pistner has the challenge of making an unsuspecting Ruth believable. She is fantastic in the role and she makes the best choices available given where the play's plot leaves her: she underscores Ruth's neediness. Her trust in Lisa and her blindness to the clues rests in her loneliness. Under Jennie Ward's smart direction, Bearmon Pistner is particularly adept at portraying Ruth's trajectory from self-possessed, autonomous, and somewhat spicy admired literary figure to a physically weakened old woman who needs a caretaker to take out the garbage and get the groceries. The loss of independence is heartbreaking to watch.
Despite the concerns mentioned, the play is superb. Margulies writes wonderful banter, and when the two characters ultimately have their confrontation, the dialogue is sizzling.
Collected Stories has only a few more performances. It's that wonderful thing: a truly intelligent, witty and challenging play, the kind that makes you leave the theater with unanswered questions. Try to catch this one.
Collected Stories, through March 18, 2018, at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, 1978 Ford Parkway, St Paul MN. For tickets, call 651-647-4315 or visit mnjewishtheatre.org.
Directed by Jennie Ward