Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Re-collected stories

Liz Hayes and Bobbie Steinbach in Collected Stories.  Photo: Andrew Brilliant

Donald Margulies chose an old, simple tale for the spine of his two-hander Collected Stories. Perhaps you've heard it before - it goes something like:

Mother nurtures daughter; daughter betrays mother.  Mother decides to murder daughter.

I know; it's not the kind of thing you'd put on a Hallmark card.  But matricide and filicide (as well as plain old sororicide), savage as they may be, are always highly theatrical; they make you sit up and pay attention (just ask the Greeks).

But that savage edge is precisely what's missing from an otherwise thoughtful, finely shaded version of Collected Stories now playing at the New Rep.  So we're never quite on the edge of our seats.  The production has been directed subtly by Bridget Kathleen O'Leary, and features nuanced turns from local stars Bobbie Steinbach and Liz Hayes; and its physical production is superb.  But it's almost too nuanced; O'Leary doesn't seem to want the script to shake us; she wants instead to remind us that life is complicated, that everyone has his (or her) reasons, that our motives are never wholly good or wholly bad, etc. - the whole creative-writing-class how-to-create-a-complex-character lesson plan.

And these are all worthwhile strategies, of course.  Usually.  Certainly they have their place in any production of Collected Stories, which is rife with knowing details of Manhattan's boho literary set - right down to a reading at the 92nd St. Y.  But at bottom - and it's not so very far down - Collected Stories is a stripped-down saga of betrayal and revenge; it's a David Mamet 90-minute wonder set in the rumpled, humanist precincts of those addicted to the Sunday Times - and with an inscrutable lady villain straight outta Speed-the-Plow who this time is after one of her own gender.

The set-up sometimes feels almost too familiar, in fact.  Lisa Morrison (Hayes), an insecure (but talented!) undergraduate mouse, invades the book-lined lair of literary lion Ruth Steiner (Steinbach), who is such a grand old dame she actually writes at a manual typewriter (why not with a quill?).  Lisa is timorously seeking advice on her budding career as an author; and Ruth is only too happy to give it, as long as it comes couched in an extended self-performance of growls, scratches, roars - and eventually, purrs.  During the ensuing tutelage, the women become intimates, and their emotional lives become entwined - but as Lisa runs out of personal material by the end of her first book of (yes) collected stories, where else is she to turn for her first novel's plot but to her own mentor's colorful past?

A past laden with obvious symbolism, by the way.  It turns out that Steiner herself gained fame as the lover of a more famous older writer - an actual writer, the literary manqué of mid-century Jewish New York, Delmore Schwartz - who of course launched his own career by plundering his parents' troubled marriage for his breakout story, "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities." Ironically enough, Schwartz is also the thinly-veiled protagonist of Saul Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift - and Schwartz-esque figures decorate the oeuvres of Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and even Lou Reed!  So the question of art imitating life is wrapped so tightly around his biography - Schwartz has been fodder for up-and-coming writers for so long, and his tragedy a stepping-stone for so many - that you sense Margulies has aimed a very cold spear right at the heart of his own tribe, even as you kind of wonder how Ruth could be so very shocked to discover her connection to Schwartz has been plundered by her own protégée (who, it may be worth noting, is not Jewish but a WASP).

But there's a reason why Ruth herself never pulled a Bellow or Lowell on Delmore - why she never "appropriated" their affair for her own purposes; at the climax of Collected Stories, we discover their love was hollow; Schwartz, ruined by years of psychological torment and alcohol abuse, was impotent.  So her life story - and hence the story of Lisa's novel, too - are indeed fictions.  This is Margulies's last twist of the literary knife, I suppose - but that final spin operates in many directions, to say the least (far too many to go into here).

In purely theatrical terms, however, the revelation only ups the emotional ante for Ruth - by the play's final scene, she has been transfigured into not only a wronged, vengeful mother but a humiliated lover as well.  Thus as she tears about her apartment, and into the stricken, treasonous Lisa, there should be blood all over the floor (at least metaphorically).  Yet where ferocity is demanded, I'm afraid Bobbie Steinbach can only offer feistiness, which - even though she is loved for it locally - is hardly the same thing.  So Margulies' intended climax only partially comes off.  Still, Steinbach is fine in the more mournful registers of the play (she conveys eloquently Ruth's mixed feelings at watching a younger woman enjoy the success she remembers so well), and she's as witty as ever; this is two-thirds of a great performance.

And you feel that if Steinbach had only come through, then Hayes would have, too; this talented young actress is becoming known for detailed, committed performances that are always compelling on the surface, but don't always fully resonate further down.  Here she's really in finer form than Steinbach throughout - she nails the innocent guile of the ambitious young literary thing, without ever turning the part into a venal caricature; as she should, Hayes keeps some of Lisa's secrets to herself.  In the end, however, I felt the actress lacked the desperate, furtive drive that must power the character (and make her sit through all of Ruth's tiresome histrionics), and sensed that neither Steinbach nor Hayes ever quite tapped into the competitive mother-daughter messiness that Margulies indicates is the core of their rapport.

Still, Collected Stories is largely well-told, and the emotional and moral questions it poses partly come through; it's certainly a pleasurable and sophisticated evening out.  The production simply could be so much more - if only O'Leary and company could develop a taste for theatrical blood.

1 comment:

  1. Schwartz-esque figures decorate the oeuvres of Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and even Lou Reed!

    Certainly that can't be the exclaimation point of surprise. Lou Reed was Delmore Schwartz' student at Syracuse University.