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This review by Joan Crespi was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 14, 1999. All rights reserved

Review: `Collected Stories’

When is "Collected Stories" not a book of short

stories? When it’s a play. Written by Donald Margulies and directed

by William Carden, it stars the renowned, legendary Uta Hagen. Now

79, Hagen plays opposite the younger Lorca Simons in the two-character

play currently running at the George Street Playhouse through Sunday,

May 2. Go there.

Winner of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, the play carefully,

with witty dialogue, moves to a spell-binding climax. It’s about youth

and age — "it’s about time," both characters say —

as well as about writing. The acting is outstanding. Simons is convincing,

and Hagen is so real that she is her character. Here’s perfection.

"Collected Stories"describes the books of stories each of

the characters, both fiction writers, has put together from her own

oeuvre. And "collected" here has another meaning: a young,

aspiring writer who feels she has used up the material from her own

life, appropriates the true-life stories of an older woman, her mentor.

The play’s overarching story is simple: an older woman, Ruth (Uta

Hagen), an author and a professor of creative writing, unmarried and

childless, invites a talented student, Lisa (Lorca Simons), for a

private tutorial in her Greenwich Village apartment where books clutter

the shelves and are scattered beneath the coffee table. Their relationship

is distant at first. Ruth is a crusty, feisty old lady. Lisa, nervous,

garrulous, snoopy, admiring of Ruth’s many published stories, fears

Ruth will see her as a flatterer and sycophant.

The desperately over-eager Lisa soon becomes Ruth’s personal assistant,

still afraid to annoy Ruth. But the relationship ripens over time.

After two years, the women are at ease with one another, friends enough

for Ruth to divulge an intimate relationship she had as a young woman

with the mad, drunk, idolized 1950s poet, Delmore Schwartz. "Poor

schmuck!" Ruth says of herself. "I took shit from him in the

name of poetry!" Ruth has never written about it: "Some things

you don’t touch."

Upon Lisa’s success with her own stories, Ruth mothers

the young writer even as she is jealous of her youthful success. But

Lisa has learned well from Ruth, learned not only about writing but

about "ruthless" (her word) behavior. Lisa appropriates Ruth’s

privately told stories about Schwartz and uses them, fictionalized,

in her own novel. Ruth, hurt and bitterly angry, feels betrayed. Lisa

has stolen her life.

"Stay away from Schwartz! He’s mine, not yours!" Ruth cries.

She has called her lawyer. But Lisa, and youth, has already won, as

this outstanding play slowly turns the women’s relationship upside

down and Ruth is left, aged, childless, crushed.

The question the play poses is real. Whose life is it to use, anyway?

Few writers make up their fiction out of whole cloth. (Even futuristic

or historical stories depend on human relationships and emotions.)

Most fiction writers are inspired by stories in their own or their

friends’ lives. What is available and what is private? The problem

is a common one among writers who, hearing one another’s stories,

sometimes ask, "Can I have that, or are you going to use it?"

As Ruth says, "it’s a matter of professional courtesy." Ruth

might write stories of others’ lives who are not writers, "but

I have a voice!" Do writers take from non-writers? The roman

a clef is a common genre. "We are all scavengers," Ruth

tells Lisa. But you take lightly and imagine heavily. Shakespeare,

for instance, stole plots from other works, but so far as we know,

didn’t steal liberally from other living writers’ recounted lives.

"Collected Stories" premiered in 1996 in California. Hagen

first played Ruth in 1997 at the HB Studio. (Herbert Berghof, who

died in 1990, was Hagen’s husband.) The play, starring Hagen, then

moved to the Lucille Lortel Theater where our New York critic, Simon

Saltzman, saw it and raved (U.S. 1, August 26, 1998). Last week we

published Saltzman’s love letter to Hagen. And he’s not alone. Ben

Brantley of the New York Times calls Hagen "one of the major theatrical

talents of this century." And Clive Barnes of the New York Post

raves "Uta Hagen is magnificent." As George Street’s Gabriel

Shanks heard someone there remark, "It’s too bad we don’t have

a knighting system in this country." Then Hagen would be a Dame.

Like Dame Judi Dench.

While the production has the same cast and director as in New York,

it was reworked to fit the George Street stage. This production is

here because George Street’s artistic director, David Saint, studied

with Hagen for six years, and is also her friend.

The inspiration for the play grew out of the celebrated case in which

the late poet Stephen Spender sued novelist David Leavitt for appropriating

intimate published details of his, Spender’s, life. And won. So, can

Leavitt sue playwright Margulies for using his story, however

fictionalized? This is not Leavitt’s story. Wholly imagined, Margulies’

play was simply inspired by the suit. You can’t sue a muse.

— Joan Crespi

Collected Stories, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Continues through Sunday, May

2. $24 to $32.

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