Telling Actions

Things you'd never guess if you didn't already know them: Uta Hagen's turning 80, and Collected Stories isn't being presented for the first time. Barring her white hair and an occasional flicker of age-related frailty, Hagen onstage looks a feisty 63 at most. And when she and her colleague Lorca Simons attack Donald Margulies's script, it's not only hard to imagine there were any previous productions--at certain moments it's an effort to remember they're not making the lines up as they go.

A very creditable production of Collected Stories was seen at Manhattan Theatre Club roughly a year ago, directed by Lisa Peterson, with Maria Tucci and Deborah Messing in the roles now being played by Hagen and Simons. But after the two latter ladies, under William Carden's direction, have stormed their way through the emotionally fraught final scene, "creditable" no longer seems a term of praise in theater criticism; every creditable thing about the prior production has been kicked aside by the sheer force of the newer one's theatricality. Margulies's play, interestingly, comes out looking considerably stronger as well as fresher. The naturalistic dressing of doubts and fidgets and props with which Peterson's cast wove such elaborate arabesques turns out to have been only an elaborate cover for a Shavian dialectic on art and morals in a money-centered society.

The two women whom Margulies imagines fighting out the phases of this debate are Ruth (Hagen), an aging, crustily eminent short-story writer, and Lisa (Simons), an aspirant in flight from a barren suburban childhood, who begins as a nervously defensive student, working her way up to indispensable aide and then to trusted confidante--until she commits what Ruth sees as an unforgivable act. Searching for a way to top the debut volume of short stories that has made reviewers hail her as the voice of a new generation, Lisa appropriates Ruth's recollections of her own start in the Greenwich Village literary scene of the '50s, including a woeful love affair with the booze-decayed Delmore Schwartz. As he has from the beginning, Margulies carefully layers the acrimony that flares up between the two women with dense stacks of motive. Partly simple outrage at the violation of her privacy, Ruth's fury also contains envy of Lisa's youth and her media success, as well as a more refined artist's disgust with a work aimed at a market where tell-all sex and vulgarity have become the principal determinants.

Lisa, similarly, is both wounded by Ruth's reaction to what she has conceived as a loving tribute to her mentor, and guiltily aware of baser motives, including the need to free her work from Ruth's rigorously principled supervision. In addition, her more contemporary notions of feminist rightness have made her impatient with Ruth's endless scruples and moral speculations. In one dazzling scene, a sort of storm-warning prelude to the explosion over Lisa's novel, Ruth exasperates Lisa by finding justifications for Woody Allen's behavior in the Soon-Yi affair, finally explaining that the function of celebrities is to keep the public supplied with gossip.

As that suggests, Margulies has loaded virtually every seeming digression and every quotidian detail with a meaningful gunpowder that will add its explosive weight to the final argument. In addition, his subtle mind can't resist playing on the idea of storytelling itself, some variant of which occurs in nearly every scene, and the forms it can take as action. Surely not by coincidence, the script's most moving section is one in which the two women unconsciously duplicate for us onstage a new story that we piece together from their discussion of it--a story about two women who bake birthday cakes together, which Ruth has written as a way of conveying to Lisa that she has a terminal illness. This, too, prepares us for the final bout, since it pits the delicate dignity that keeps Ruth from spelling out the situation against Lisa's seemingly opaque incomprehension, which turns out to be a sensitive soul's resistance to news too painful to bear.

Or does it? From the very start, when Lisa can't fathom Ruth's shouted explanations about throwing down the key, there are aspects to each woman that the other doesn't "get": generational, cultural, ethical, or, inevitably--this is a Margulies play--ethnic. The free and easy Village writer's life that is Ruth's touchstone and the core myth of Lisa's novel has vanished, just as the magazines that sustained it have sunk into glossy celebrity-chasing. (The show's biggest laugh is a dismissive line about The New Yorker.) Many of the great figures who dominated that long-gone life were, like Delmore Schwartz, assimilated Jews, and it's more an inevitable blow than a shock when Ruth tells Lisa that, being gentile, she can't write about them--an argument as unanswerable as it is untenable.

These ambiguities give Collected Stories its tensile strength; as always, they amount to Margulies's ongoing moral scrutiny of his own work, as if he shared his desk with an ever-questioning second self. What limitations, if any, are there on an artist's right to use the lives of others as material? What rights, if any, does identity have over creativity? Does the quality of the work, or of the time for which it's created, change the rules? Reaching up to the tight-lipped heights of the Stephen Spender­David Leavitt controversy, the play's questions equally swoop down to brush against the media circuses that surround an O. J. Simpson or a Monica Lewinsky. While it's easy to equate Lisa with everything loathsome about the crass, exploitative culture we live in, Ruth's integrity can just as easily seem small-scale and hemmed in, its tiny truth a rather feeble beacon to those searching for a pathway through the all-engulfing swill. At least Lisa's been brave enough to tackle a novel; Ruth's work is all collected stories.

Not that Ruth's truth, or anything else about her, seems tiny as played by Hagen. What's astonishing is how she makes the woman's largeness of spirit, even her ferocity, with such economy of means. Her Melanie Klein was a dynamo of nervous energy, every jumpy gesture a piece of psychoanalytic evidence; no actress has ever torn up envelopes more rivetingly. Ruth, in contrast, is a watcher and waiter, glaring balefully over gorgon spectacles. Movement and physical business--like the brewing of the tea the two women never drink--is kept to a pro forma minimum. Tucci, creating the role, painted the character in ceaseless strokes of feathery detail; Hagen just is. Instead of looking for gestures that tell you Ruth is Jewish, she simply puts on the glasses and glares, and Hannah Arendt is speaking. Sweeping the needless details out of the way, she gives more weight to the significant ones with which the text is mined--and which give her a steadier approach to the big moments, at which "towering" becomes the only appropriate word. If you're staging Don Giovanni, and want to know what it's like to have a stone statue suddenly show up for dinner, watch the first-act moment in which Ruth discovers that Lisa has tidied up the piles of papers on her desk--the granite gives off flames.

The second act, with Ruth increasingly nettled by Lisa's mushrooming success, is a wildfire of such flames. And just as Hagen's triumphant fury burns the text into clarity, it brings out the blazing best in her acting partner: Simons is revealed as an actress with an incisiveness and a fury of her own. Where Deborah Messing, playing opposite Tucci, seemed to wrap herself nervously in the character's guilts and inner conflicts, Simons fights back. Only tiny facial tremors, in the aftermath of the punched-out lines, hint at her uncertainty, at the dark consequences this traumatic confrontation is bound to have. The ending, colder and more final than in the earlier production, reverberates far more disturbingly. As with Mrs. Klein, the hallmark of Carden's direction is his good sense in leaving well enough alone. Letting his two actresses go for the jugular and toss aside the clutter, he opens the way for what must be the ultimate compliment: As you leave, you hear the audience carrying on the characters' debate--Hagen's performance is so great it makes them talk about the play instead of gushing over her.

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