A fan becomes a protégé and ultimately a rival of an older mentor--it's a plot we've seen many times, but rarely has it been laced with as many fascinating interpersonal intricacies as in Donald Margulies' Collected Stories.
With outstanding performances by Maedell Dixon and Sybille Bruun, Invisible Theatre's staging of the Pulitzer-nominated play is sure to be one of the most memorable productions of the season.
Ruth Steiner (Dixon) is a celebrated short-story writer who testily serves on the creative writing faculty of a New York university. Lisa Morrison (Bruun) is a promising but star-struck graduate student who becomes Ruth's slavishly devoted assistant and, eventually, friend. Within a few years, Lisa begins to achieve literary success with little real help from Ruth.
Before long, Lisa realizes she can't draw much more fiction from her own limited personal experiences. "I've blown the lid off bulimia in the suburbs," she says self-mockingly, completely at a loss for more universal ideas. So she fashions a novel from an episode in Ruth's life: her affair as a young woman with dissolute writer Delmore Schwartz. Ruth sees this as a betrayal, and the friendship ruptures.
That's the plot from beginning to end, but it's hardly the whole story. Why is Ruth so distraught? After all, she once told Lisa, "I don't care what the basis of a story is as long as it's a good story." And what, exactly, is Lisa trying to do? Is she truly paying homage to her mentor, or merely plagiarizing Ruth's experiences? And what about the tense mother-daughter dynamics of their relationship? And Ruth's sense of her own mortality? These are some of the issues that enrich the play and provide Dixon and Bruun an abundance of intriguing, conflicting motivations.
Margulies lifted the central conflict in this play from an incident involving novelist David Leavitt, who used incidents from the life of Stephen Spender, a poet he did not know personally, as the basis of a novel. Spender sued, and Leavitt's book was banned from England.
Given all that, and the fact that Delmore Schwartz was an actual person (the model for the brilliant but dissolute "poet, thinker, problem drinker" at the center of Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift), you might suspect that Margulies has based Ruth on a figure from Schwartz's circle. Don't waste your time trying to figure out who she's "supposed" to be, even in literary rather than biographical terms (in her preoccupation with ordinary Jews in America, you might think of her as an amalgam of Bernard Malamud and Cynthia Ozick, although from the way Lisa describes her work she seems more like an urban-Jewish counterpart to Alice Munro). Forget all that; she's Ruth Steiner, and that's plenty.
Maedell Dixon brings Ruth to life as a woman who is highly sympathetic despite being demanding, disagreeable, frequently insensitive and perhaps wrong in her final evaluation of Lisa. Dixon makes it clear that there's nothing arbitrary about any aspect of Ruth's character, and her heartbreak is palpable when, near the end, she cries angrily to Lisa, "I could have used your friendship, but you were too busy going through my panty drawer."
Sybille Bruun is equally compelling as Lisa, very gradually developing from an insecure, nervously chattering groupie into a more confident and slightly conniving literary competitor. Some people may prefer a darker reading of this play, in which Lisa deliberately capitalizes on Ruth's decline as she manages her own ascent, but, as directed by Deborah Dickey, Bruun brings convincing sincerity to each of Lisa's lines. And that actually makes the play more interesting, complicating the relationship's dynamics (Lisa is no calculating All About Eve-style villain) and making the rupture more heartbreaking.
Director Dickey keeps the dialog flowing smoothly and occasionally overlapping in a natural way, and in the end, she insists on intensity without histrionics. The set, costumes and lighting all accomplish exactly what's necessary without getting in the way of the performances; the final lighting cue, just before the fade-out, is itself particularly moving.
Last week's opening-night audience was thin by Invisible Theatre's standards. Why stay home and watch manipulated half-truths on CNN and Fox when you can find a more honest depiction of the consequences of ambition and folly in Collected Stories?