'Collected Stories' — The unbearable lightness of ownership

I didn't see Donald Margulies' "Collected Stories" when it premiered at Orange County's South Coast Rep in 1996, but I saw a credible version of it several years later at, I think, a theater in Portland or Seattle, if memory serves.

I vividly recall feeling struck less by the moral quandary at the play's center than by the emotional interplay between the two characters,

Ruth, a successful writer who never quite lived up to her early promise, and Lisa, a young writer looking for — and maybe finding (which is where the ethical question resides) — a fast way up the literary ladder.

It's not surprising that the Craterian's Next Stage Rep is doing this finely wrought little drama. Artistic Director Doug Warner, who directed, programs small-cast, simple-set plays that can be squeezed into the Craterian's schedule. And he looks for good stories.

"Collected Stories" is a compelling if modestly ambitious tracing of the relationship between ethics, ambition, friendship and privacy among writerly types. Its run is a short one, with repeat performances at 7:30 tonight and Saturday.

The story of "Collected Stories" is a simple one, and the title gives it away. Ruth Steiner (Gwen Overland) is a member of the New York literati in good standing, courtesy of a critically acclaimed book of short stories she wrote in her early 20s. Her reputation didn't ascend after her early success, but it persisted, even if she did wind up in the one-book author category.

Now deep into middle age, she teaches writing in her swank/faux boho apartment in New York City's West Village, which Warner has represented with a set that's long on coziness but curiously, for a writer's digs, short on books. One set of shelves?

Enter young grad student Lisa Morrison (Danielle Pecoff), whom Ruth takes on as a protégé. At first she's breathless before the casually imperious Ruth. But we will follow these women through six acts spanning their changes over six years.

Like her mentor, Lisa publishes a well-received collection of short stories. Then comes the twist.

Lisa follows her stories with a novel. And it's based on — off all th e possible stories in the world — the young Ruth's affair with the famed (as these things go in poetry circles) poet Delmore Schwartz. The play's question is clear: Can one person use the stuff of another's life in her writing? Put another way, do you have the rights to your life? Exclusive rights?

"It was just material to you," Ruth wails to Lisa.

There is the vaguely dizzying suspicion that without our stories we are nothing.

The question at the heart of all this barely makes sense to journalists, who do precisely this every day of their working lives. The practice is scarcely less commonplace among the literary set (see. Hemingway, Ernest, on Fitzgerald, F. Scott, in "A Moveable Feast;" Theroux, Paul, on Naipaul, V.S., in "Sir Vidia's Shadow;" almost anything by Tom Wolfe, etc. etc.).

Margulies saves the big punch for late in the game. And most of the pleasures of "Stories" stem from character anyway. Overland's Ruth poses as the outside observer, armoring herself in her now long-past success as she holds herself aloof from her students.

In a prefiguring of the main conflict, Ruth tells Lisa that one of her early stories is "about ownership."

Pecoff's Lisa comes on mousy but hungry. She plays to the grande dame in Ruth, earning the older woman's interest with a promising story. And Ruth knows talent when she sees it.

The women become friends, a process that culminates in Ruth telling Lisa about her affair with Schwartz, the famed poet, when she was just a young Jewish girl from Detroit falling for the mad poet raving in Village watering holes about DiMaggio and Kierkegaard. This intimacy between teacher and student, this opting for vulnerability, will come back to haunt Ruth.

There's a tightness of focus underscored even by the music between the acts, "All Blues" from Miles Davis's iconic "Kind of Blue" (which is from 1959, not '57, when Ruth fell for the older man, but what the heck).

One wonders what the real Delmore Scwartz, who died in 1966, would make of all this. I think he'd side with Lisa, which Margulies doesn't. After all, Schwartz did what Lisa did to Ruth to his own parents, making their apparently miserable marriage the subject of his most famous short story, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities."

Like Ruth, Schwartz's first book of stories came out when he was young (25, in 1938) and won him an immediate reputation in the highest literary circles, with praise from the likes of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Allen Tate.

Schwartz fell much farther than Ruth, losing his talent to alcohol and mental illness. As for Ruth, she says her affair with the poet was her "shining moment" (one pictures Schwartz in his cups in the Village, admitting wide-eyed with Michael Douglas's Jack Colton, "I've never been anybody's best time!")

So for the record. Lisa did to Ruth what Delmore did to his parents, and now Margulies is doing it to Schwartz. The viewer is free to make of this what he will. But playwrights don't put real people into their stories arbitrarily. Circles within circles.

All such brain-breaking resonances aside, the current on the stage comes not so much from the tepid theme but from the chemistry between Pecoff's complex, striving Lisa and Overland's wounded, betrayed Ruth. And that's very good chemistry indeed.

This is the way women fall in like, we feel. it's not sexual or spiritual or ideological or anything but friendship. And that's a powerful thing, and a thing not to be tossed aside. Only maybe sometimes it is.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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