May 8, 2010

True-to-Life Characters in "Collected Stories"

We’ve now opened a branch of the Donald Margulies fan club at my house.  Our admiration for his witty and thought-provoking plays started last fall when my husband K and I saw Time Stands Still, the playwright’s affective drama about war journalists that closed in March but, it’s just been announced, is returning in September with three members—Laura Linney, Brian d’Arcy James, and Eric Bogosian—of its original four-person cast.

Our feelings about Margulies intensified after we rented the film version of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Dinner with Friends. And they blossomed into full-fledged adoration when we went to see the new revival of his Collected Stories, which opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre last week.

Margulies writes what once were revered—but are now too often dismissed—as well-crafted plays. His work is specific and metaphoric at the same time, rooted in individual people but often asking big questions about the role art plays in our lives.  The individuals in Collected Stories are Ruth Steiner, a respected short story writer who lives in Greenwich Village, and Lisa Morrison, the young woman who becomes her protégée. The stories in the play’s title are both the ones the characters write and the ones that we all tell to define who we are.

K had never seen the play before but it was the third time around for me.  I’d seen Collected Stories when it originally played at the Manhattan Theatre Club back in 1997 with Maria Tucci as Ruth and Debra Messing (before her “Will & Grace” days) as Lisa, and then a year later with the legendary actor and acting teacher Uta Hagen, then 79, and her own protégée, the young actress Lorca Simons. 

Now, Linda Lavin and Sarah Paulson have taken over the roles.  It’s been a special treat for me to have had the opportunity to see how each of the older actresses has played Ruth because I suspect the character was based on my first college advisor and writing teacher, the Greenwich Village short story writer Grace Paley. Tucci brought a wounded sensitivity to Ruth. Hagen imbued the part with her own intimidating majesty.  Lavin brings Grace, who died three years ago, vividly back to life for me.

I never visited Grace’s apartment (although I doubt it was as lavish as Santo Loquasto’s gorgeous set) and our relationship was nowhere near as intimate as the one between the characters in the play but we did sit many times in Grace's cozy office at school as she handed out the same mix of tea, tough-love criticism and shrewd advice that Ruth gives to Lisa. The similarities, however, end there.

The plot of Collected Stories was reportedly inspired by the poet Stephen Spender's plagiarism suit against David Leavitt who wrote a novel that echoed incidents in the older writer’s life and memoir. But the plot also resembles the story of the aging actress and the ambitious younger one in the classic Bette Davis film “All About Eve.”  I sided with the younger writer the first two times I saw Collected Stories but this time, I found myself identifying with the older one.

That’s probably a result of my own aging and the fact that I began teaching a couple of years ago and juggling myriad emotions about my own students. But credit also goes to Lavin and director Lynne Meadow who have created a Ruth who is both a maven and a mensch, qualities that are ideal for a mentor.  But they also allow us to see and feel Ruth’s vulnerabilities, the price she has paid for the sake of her art. Lisa has just as much stage time and Paulson holds her own but Ruth is a plum role for an older actress and Lavin, now 73, lets us savor her every bite.

After the show, K and I walked over to Orso for a late supper.  Shortly after our pastas arrived, Lavin came in and joined friends at a nearby table, perhaps to celebrate the Tony nomination she’d gotten that morning. When she was making her way back to the table after a trip to the ladies room, K stopped her. “I don’t usually do this,” he said (and he really doesn’t) “but we just saw the play and I had to thank you because you were wonderful.”  Lavin smiled.  “Stop me anytime for that,” she said, “I always have time to hear that.”

I was uncharacteristically tongue-tied, so let me say it now, Linda Lavin offers such a master class in how an actor should inhabit a part that we’re in danger of starting another fan club in our house.


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jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks, Anonymous. The kind words are much appreciated and I hope you'll continue to read B&Me and to leave the occasional comment as well. Cheers, jan

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jan@broadwayandme said...

Hello Oliver. Thanks for leaving a comment however, I'm not sure what link you're referring to since there isn't one in the post and so don't know how to correct it for you. Sorry, jan