Sadly, Donald Margulies's Collected Stories seems outdated despite Linda Lavin's ferocious performance as a university writing teacher and author–she's tough in all the right places and owns Santo Loquasto’s masterfully detailed set at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The publishing world, around which the play is centered, however, has undergone seismic, bruising change since the work was first produced, especially with the recent double whammy of an economic downturn and the advent of electronic reading devices. Margulies's story is hindered also by romantic notions regarding the industry, and he doesn't work his realistic veneer–so we're asked to believe, for example, that a graduate student, in this case, Lisa (Sarah Paulson, keeping the part balanced), would survive in New York on an academic assistant's salary or that her literary short stories regarding bulimia would be published to such acclaim that she'd be dubbed "the voice of her generation." Actually, I thought that hers would be a tough project to sell as an agent and that an editor would have difficulties pitching it to an acquisitions committee and sales department. (Other questions I had regarding the work included an estranged, wealthy father who immediately reads his daughter's short story for comment and an event at the 92nd Street Y that occurs a month before a book is available to sell.)
Having recently seen Creditors at BAM, Margulies's play brought up another Strindberg work: The Stronger. Here we also have two women at war over the ownership of one man (in Collected Stories both are attracted to one poet who has died). Persona by Ingmar Bergman—he was deeply influenced by his fellow Swede—also looks at who is the strongest between two women who share the same man. Sister Alma in that film doesn’t want to become an artist like Lisa in Collected Stories, but she switches identities with an actress Elisabeth as she cares for her; Lisa does become the writer she always wanted to be through Ruth's mentorship and, symbolically, she takes away the older woman’s male love. Bergman becomes brutal, though, in Persona: recall the shard of glass Sister Alma places for Elisabeth to step on or the boiling water she intends to throw on her. I wondered if Margulies could have taken his drama farther as well: the mentor and the mentored unleash powerful emotions to be captured dramatically.
Of course, there are other versions of this story, too—Georges Polti tells us there are only 36 dramatic situations, anyway, and Christopher Booker explains that there are only 7 basic plots. It’s not surprising, therefore, that you can also think of Collected Stories in relation to All About Eve, for example. The problem for Margulies is that there is such stiff competition in place for his theme. Fortunately, he may be telling the tale more comprehensively and with more continuity than the others.
David Edgar, author of How Plays Work has written:
In great drama, the most memorable and indeed the most meaningful moment is when the character departs from and even challenges his or her role; when the old man is brave, the lackey eloquent, the page gives sage advice, and the cleaner behaves like a princess (or, indeed, the other way round). It is the character – unpredictable, irrepressible – who declares unilateral independence from the tyranny of the preordained.
Margulies, unfortunately, hasn’t found the way to do this here–Collected Stories doesn't reverse, startle, or shock as Strindberg does in Creditors. There we realize, amazingly at the end, that the play we're watching hasn't been the play we've been watching. In contrast, with Margulies's play, we see a continuation of the way the story has been developing all along—Ruth is older, but she’s not that much different in the end than she is in the beginning. Admittedly, she probably wouldn't like the way the Publishing world has been changed either. With regard to the final moral entanglement of a woman who, ultimately, hadn’t been able to say no to her assistant or a good, liberal viewpoint, throughout the play, we don't, ultimately, see her take a decisive action. Legally, there's not much she can do regarding the issue of her stolen story, no matter how painful the situation is or how sympathetic we are toward her. Look at the straight slash of Lavin's mouth in the last scene, though. With her riveting performance, no matter what the issues may be regarding dramaturgy, or where the play stops, until she’s finished, nobody's going anywhere.
© 2010 by Bob Shuman
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