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Uta Hagen’s Recipe for Drama

This article by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 7, 1999. All rights reserved.

When Uta Hagen makes her entrance this week on the

stage of the George Street Playhouse in "Collected Stories,"

as the star of the hit play that just concluded its Off-Broadway run,

many theatergoers will want to recall the illustrious career of this

80-year-old actor and teacher. Some may even have memories dating

back to McCarter Theater in the mid-1940s when Hagen, as Desdemona,

planted one of those "the whole town’s talking" (not to mention

the whole nation) kisses on the lips of Paul Robeson, playing with

her in Shakespeare’s "Othello."

The final production of the George Street Playhouse season features

the legendary Hagen in the role of master teacher Ruth in Donald Margulies’

Off-Broadway hit, "Collected Stories." Opening night is Wednesday,

April 7, for the show that runs through Sunday, May 2. Joining Hagen

will be her Off-Broadway co-star, Lorca Simons, and William Carden,

who directed both the Off-Broadway and George Street Playhouse productions.

Premiered in 1997, "Collected Stories" tells of the complex

and explosive relationship between an esteemed writer and her most

promising student. Playwright Margulies took his inspiration for "Collected

Stories" from the actual court case in which British poet Stephen

Spender (now deceased) accused novelist David Leavitt of borrowing

liberally from his memoirs. The poet sued the writer who had appropriated

the intimate, published details of the poet’s life in his novel —

and won.

In "Collected Stories," Hagen plays Ruth, a renowned author

and college professor of creative writing who lives alone in her post-middle

years in her Greenwich Village apartment. Ruth extends an invitation

for a private tutorial to Lisa (Lorca Simons), a promising, somewhat

over-eager, and nosy graduate student.

Taking place over a six-year period, the play focuses on the testy

but invaluable bonding that grows between Lisa, who is afraid at first

that Ruth sees her as a sycophant, and Ruth, who takes pride in being

difficult. The connection they forge eventually opens the door for

Ruth to reveal to Lisa details of an intimate relationship of her

youth, which finds its way into Lisa’s first novel with explosive

results.

Although Hagen earned fame for creating some of the meatiest roles

in theatrical literature, such as the long-suffering wife in Clifford

Odet’s "The Country Girl" (1950), and the short-tempered Martha

in Edward Albee’s "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf" (1962),

both roles earning her the Tony Award, she has earned even greater

international respect as a teacher of actors. Hagen’s two books: "Respect

for Acting," and "A Challenge for the Actor" are highly

regarded for their concise and precise methodology.

In partnership with her late husband, director Herbert Berghof, Hagen

has trained (and continues to train), countless young actors. How

enviable that Hagen herself was able to draw inspiration from a career

that began auspiciously as Ophelia in a production of "Hamlet"

directed by Eva Le Gallienne. And what young actor wouldn’t want to

make her Broadway debut in 1938 (as Nina in "The Sea Gull")

opposite Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne? And no audience member felt

cheated when the acclaimed Hagen replaced Jessica Tandy in the role

of Blanche opposite Marlon Brando in Tennessee Williams’ "A Streetcar

Named Desire," directed by Elia Kazan.

Would that I had begun chronicling my evenings in the theater back

in 1968, when I had a distinct feeling of being blown away by Hagen

as Madame Ranevskya in a production of "The Cherry Orchard,"

again directed by Le Gallienne. As a fancier of George Bernard Shaw,

Hagen has given notable performances, as the militant feminist in

the 1986 Circle in the Square production of "You Never Can Tell,"

and in the title role of the 1988 Roundabout theater production of

"Mrs. Warren’s Profession." It was too long a spell before

Hagen returned to the stage in the role of a famed psychoanalyst,

"Mrs. Klein," in 1995.

Nevertheless, if I have the pleasure to see Hagen in New Brunswick,

I will not ask her to autograph the playbill. No, I will bring along

with me a well-stained book that has been my companion for many years.

It is "Uta Hagen’s Love for Cooking," her public debut as

a cook — a role she confesses is the real love of her life.

— Simon Saltzman

Collected Stories, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Opening night for the play that

runs through May 2. $24 to $32. Wednesday, April 7, 8 p.m.


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