note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi
Ruth Steiner … Nancy E. Carroll
Lisa Morrison … Karin Webb
If you were fortunate to attend a performance of Donald Margulies’ COLLECTED STORIES at the Gloucester Stage Company, you are that much closer to understanding what makes a writer tick. Mr. Margulies has written a witty, literate dramedy and director Eric Engel and two sterling actresses --- Nancy E. Carroll and Karin Webb --- did it up proud.
COLLECTED STORIES is the third play about artists I have seen these past few weeks --- a trilogy not only about the artist’s nature but also how to portray the artist’s work upon a stage. In VAN GOGH and ROMANTIQUE, a painter and a pianist performed right before our eyes and ears. As for writers, the stage can offer nothing better than an actor reciting the words as he/she scribbles (think of Barbara Cook intoning “Dearrrrrrr….Frrrrrrriend….” in SHE LOVES ME). As for the act of creation….when I lived in New York, a “name” director was fascinated with my play about the Hawthorne-Melville relationship but declared Melville scribbling at his desk wasn’t “theatrical” enough: he suggested having actors standing behind a scrim symbolizing Melville’s subconscious; the actors would press against the scrim, signifying their characters were taking shape. Suddenly, a harpoon would pierce the fabric and a full-blown Ahab would step through, followed by the others (including the whale?) --- MOBY-DICK would be born! (I didn’t use his suggestion --- it made me think of tent caterpillars.) No, far better to skip the mime/creation altogether and concentrate on the writer him/herself, and this Mr. Margulies does and does well (COLLECTED STORIES boasted a typewriter, but it was never touched).
Inspired by the Stephen Spender-David Leavitt literary controversy --- Mr. Leavitt, without permission, wrote a novel based on Mr. Spender’s autobiography; Mr. Spender accused Mr. Leavitt of stealing his life --- Mr. Margulies tells of Ruth, a successful New York writer and teacher, and Lisa, one of Ruth’s students, who passes from protégée to colleague to betrayer in the course of six years. Under Ruth’s guidance, Lisa grabs the brass ring with her own collection of stories yet there is more to her than meets the eye: she submits a manuscript to a journal without Ruth’s knowledge and gets it published; she has her father read a story about him which hurts both him and her stepmother; finally, while Ruth is undergoing chemotherapy (her cancer is not specified), she is devastated to learn that for her first novel Lisa has fictionalized Ruth’s affair with poet Delmore Schwartz --- an affair told to Lisa in assumed confidence; Ruth ends their friendship and prepares to file a lawsuit. In BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE, Thomas Gibbons asks: does one race have the right to represent another; here, Mr. Margulies asks: who owns a true-life story? (In counter-attack, Ruth declares she has already written about her affair but has never published it. If true, has she held onto it because it is still HER story; one she does NOT want to share with the world?) Like Mr. Gibbons, Mr. Margulies doesn’t settle for a neat ending --- Lisa scores as many points as does Ruth in their knock-down debate; non-writers, no doubt, would side with Ruth --- but imagine all prints of CITIZEN KANE being destroyed if Hearst had gotten his way…. A minor glitch: Ruth’s monologue about her affair is as “planted” as Schwartz’ letter is in the book Lisa leafs through --- I could hear Mr. Margulies murmuring, “Remember this monologue; I’ll be using it later on….” But COLLECTED STORIES (ironic title!) is so damned entertaining that I didn’t care, really: a teacher himself as well as a writer, Mr. Margulies clearly knows and enjoys what he is talking about and the women’s rapport quickly proves infectious; I wouldn’t have minded an evening of Ruth and Lisa simply discussing literature in talk-show fashion.
And what a pleasure to have seen Eric Engel masterly blend it all together! His last two productions that I attended --- THE LIBSON TRAVIATA (Lyric Stage) and ON RAFTERY’S HILL (Súgán Theatre) --- were uneven in their tragicomedy. Here, all was seamless: you’d swear Life itself simply unfolded upon the stage. Sarah Sullivan’s set design nicely evoked a Greenwich Village walk-up, which, by the way, would be no larger than the actual setting --- oh, yes.
Whatever the odds are of an actor contributing two excellent performances in one year, Nancy Carroll has done it. This past spring she turned in what could be the year’s finest musical performance --- Mrs. Lovett in New Rep’s production of SWEENEY TODD --- crystal clear in her singing and declamation and well-poised between the comedic and the lethal. As Ruth, Ms. Carroll proved as equally at home in a writer’s body as she had been in a baker’s. To quote Max Beerbohm again on portraying writers, “Accustomed to express themselves through a medium wherein there is no place for gesture, or play of features, or modulation of the voice, they become peculiarly passive in their mode of conversation. Obliged in their work to dispense with such adventurous aids, they lose the power to use them in their off moments.” This Ms. Carroll did to perfection --- she had the presence, the authority to be undemonstrative yet shrewdly observant. In short, she was believable as a writer without even looking at that typewriter --- Ruth’s artistry is the guarded core of her being; what Lisa and the world see is merely the flesh wrapped around it (Ruth, in turn, is surprised that Lisa, on first acquaintance, does not match up with the seriousness of her writing assignment.) When Ruth becomes ill and her privacy has been invaded and her artistic core has shrunken, Ms. Carroll turns her as cold and as stark as a bone --- the lonely, embittered person is all that’s left. Mrs. Lovett would think twice before putting her on the menu….
Ms. Carroll was also lucky in being given another invaluable partner. (Her Sweeney Todd had been the rich-voiced Todd Alan Johnson.) Karin Webb’s Lisa was no less convincing a writer in infancy than Ms. Carroll’s Ruth in maturity; her artistic core little more than a seed; her flesh, still dominating. (Ah, but how subtly Ms. Webb changed all that!) During intermission, I overheard two women discussing the first act; one woman said, “The Lisa in New York was far more ruthless.” Apples and oranges, of course, but casting the cuddly Ms. Webb blurred the issues in the right way and balanced the debate --- Ms. Webb’s Lisa was not evil but self-absorbed, a combination of green heart and troubled childhood; of testing the waters and then boldly plunging in; she might indeed have been acting out of innocence --- like, if there’s something to write about, why not write it? A hard, knowing Lisa would have gotten nowhere with Ms. Carroll’s eagle-eyed Ruth --- Ms. Webb’s Lisa, however, went far with her artless charm and the tragedy was all the more heartbreaking for it.
There are rumors that this COLLECTED STORIES will be coming to Boston in the near future. If so, start watching the skies --- this production was one of the year’s best, and writers can use all the understanding they can get.