With the rift between literati Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul making highbrow headlines, the timing of the Off Broadway return engagement of Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories” is certainly felicitous. So it’s a sad surprise to discover that a second perusal of this intelligently rendered tale of book-world betrayal reveals it to be of thinner virtues than one had recalled, and, in this production at least, more noticeable faults.
The occasion for the revival, a little more than a year after the play’s initial Gotham run at Manhattan Theater Club, is the participation of veteran actress and acting guru Uta Hagen. But here, too, the production is a let-down: Although it contains moments of intense power, and Hagen has a faultless way with a sarcastic aside, her performance overall is unfocused and occasionally fussy. It isn’t the tour de force audiences may — unfairly, perhaps — be hoping for. Being a living legend has its drawbacks.
Hagen plays Ruth Steiner, a short-story specialist whose years of minor fame are long since past. She makes her living somewhat crankily instructing bright-eyed young college students in the craft of writing at Columbia, although she’s quick to opine that the art cannot be taught.
Arriving breathless at her Greenwich Village apartment one day (Ray Recht’s single set is too busy) is Lisa Morrison (Lorca Simons), an adulatory student whose linguistic vulgarity belies an authentic writing talent that Ruth warily recognizes.
Over the course of the play’s talky first act, Ruth and Lisa strike up a bond that begins when Lisa virtually begs to be given the honor of a job as Ruth’s assistant, and culminates with the acolyte being upgraded to colleague, as Lisa offhandedly announces that a story she’s written has been accepted by Grand Street — a publication she hadn’t told Ruth she was submitting it to.
That minor, equivocal betrayal is followed by a more devastating one in act two. Lisa, who whines that she’s used up her store of angst in her first, Michiko Kakutani-approved story collection, uses the details of Ruth’s youthful affair with Delmore Schwartz as the basis for her debut novel. In the play’s final scene, Ruth and Lisa have it out, as Ruth denounces as appropriation and betrayal what Lisa defends as inspiration and homage.
William Carden — a former student of Hagen’s, as it happens, who also directed her in “Mrs. Klein” — betrays signs of a director for whom performance takes precedence over play. Simons is a skilled actress, but she is allowed to overplay the crassness of a character whose irritating surface makes it almost impossible to believe she possesses the depth of feeling to make a mark as a literary artist.
Her wincing nervousness in the first scenes is almost as hard to take as the pouty petulance she trades it in for in act two, and Lisa’s aggressive questioning when Ruth recalls the details of her affair with Schwartz signals too obviously the plot developments to come.
Hagen has some heart-gripping moments in the more sympathetic role of the prickly older woman whose association with a writer starting out in life brings as much pain as pleasure. Her performance, which at first relies too handily for effect on the wonderful bass croak in her voice, takes fire when Ruth recounts the history of her affair with the poet, her “shining hour,” as she calls it.
Margulies’ writing has a hypnotic, almost poetic, beauty in this monologue suffused with the ache of nostalgia, and Hagen gives it its full due.
She also comes through in the play’s last scene; her eyes seem to widen in sorrow and narrow in rage as she lashes out at Lisa. But elsewhere her performance seems more disengaged, and it was marked by too many fluffed lines for it to go unnoticed.
Most hazardously, the growing emotional connection between these two women never comes across, and so the problems of the play’s construction loom larger. The first five of the play’s six scenes play as a long buildup to the last, which is thus freighted with too much dramatic ballast. And the play’s abrupt ending following this peak is like slamming into a wall just when you’ve gained some speed — the play ends just when it’s getting interesting.
(With minimal emotional engagement, quibbles also arise: Why are we given such a big taste of Lisa’s bad novel, when a few sentences would make the point that she’d ripped off Ruth’s life? Why does a debate about feminism have to be perfunctorily dragged into the final showdown?)
But the pleasures of Margulies’ dialogue are indisputable. He’s a writer of wit and intelligence, who never stoops to earning laughs at the expense of his characters’ integrity. His Gotham-centric barbs — “Life is too short for the New Yorker!” — will certainly delight those who didn’t catch the play in its previous run. And if “Collected Stories” isn’t a volume that deepens upon rereading, it’s still a crackling good tale.