Sunday, September 23, 2012

Collected Stories by Donald Margulies

Natalie Sutherland & April Lang

By Joe Straw

Pat Conroy is a great American novelist.  And his fictionalized novels have upset quite a few people, mostly members of his family, and others surrounding him. (Okay, everyone he knows.) 

After Conroy published The Great Santini, his grandmother cut ties. For her, the truth hit too close to home. She was offended by the portrayal of her son—Conroy’s father, even though it was toned down and fictionalized.

Nevertheless, the collected truth smarts like the sting from a yellow jacket.  

There is something about Collected Stories written by Donald Margulies, directed by Terri Hanauer, and presented by Langland Productions at the Odyssey Theatre,  that is richly satisfying.  Watching two intelligent people discussing the craft of writing, and observing these writers grow after each lesson, is something to behold and fascinating to watch.    

But, with all the love displayed about the room, I believe there is deeper level to this play.  Something very sinister emerges involving a devious character that has an underlying subconscious objective.  This objective is eventually realized resulting in a very tragic emotional ending.  

The play begins in September 1990 in Greenwich Village.   Ruth Steiner (April Lang), a noted novelist and professor, is quietly having a piece of mondel bread and sipping on a cup of tea.  She waits for a sound outside her apartment knowing that it will be a student arriving for a tutorial. Amid the sounds of the noisy street below, she hears that student yelling.  Lisa Morrison, (Natalie Sutherland), is three floors below looking for a way into Ruth's apartment building.

Ruth opens the window, tells her the buzzer doesn’t work, and throws down her key so that Lisa can let herself in.

Unfortunately there is a problem now. Ruth cannot close the window and the cold September air breezes into the room.

In the meantime, Lisa runs up the three flights of stairs, lets herself in, and takes over the job of closing the window.  And like a makeshift surgeon, Lisa asks for a screwdriver but is handed a spatula to get the job done.   

“You’re Lisa? – Ruth

“Yes…? – Lisa

“Lisa Morrison?” – Ruth

“Uh-huh?” – Lisa

“You wrote “Eating Between Meals”?” – Ruth

Ruth stares at her believing this can’t be the person. She expects someone different: a mousy brunet with bad hair. She says Lisa doesn’t look like her story and she is hardly ever wrong.  

In any case, Ruth offers her something to drink.  Lisa says she would love a cup of coffee.  The trouble is there is only tea and only one choice, English Breakfast.

As the tea is being made Lisa looks at Ruth’s library and finds a story collection by Delmore Schwartz “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”.  In the book, she discovers an envelope from Delmore Schwartz.

“Oh my God!  Is this letter really from Delmore Schwartz himself?” – Lisa

“Put that back, please.” – Ruth

Suddenly, the phone starts to ring and Ruth doesn’t bother to pick it up which drives Lisa bonkers as they sit down for tea and mondel bread, (“Jewish biscotti”).  Lisa is sheepish and cowers under the scrutiny of Ruth Steiner’s stare, in her home, having tea, and carrying on an adult conversation.  She heaps on the praise of her work, her apartment and even remembers the vistas the characters observed in her books.

“Being here?, studying with you?  It’s like a religious experience.” – Lisa

Also, Lisa tells her she couldn’t get enough of her literature.  She even went so far as to look up her “uncollected stories” at the library.

With all the praise Ruth can take (and wanting more), she asks Lisa a few questions.

“Where’d you do your undergraduate work?” – Ruth

“In New Jersey?” – Lisa

“Uh, huh.  Where in New Jersey?” – Ruth  

“Princeton?” – Lisa

“Yes, I think I’ve heard of it.” – Ruth

Ruth tells Lisa that it is getting late and they need to work on her story, “Eating Between Meals”.  But Lisa interrupts and asks if she needs a new assistant. Ruth responds that if she’s really interested, she can apply.  But, she warns Lisa that she is a very despotic employer.

Ruth starts the lesson and as a test she asks Lisa to tell her about the character, Jessica in the supermarket. After Lisa’s expressive thoughts, Ruth believes that Lisa has the makings of a promising writer.  She just needs to find her voice.  And speaking of voice Ruth has a problem in the way Lisa communicates. 

“Why do you talk like that?” – Ruth

“Excuse me?” – Lisa

“You have a tendency to add question marks to the ends of declarative sentences. Do you know that?” – Ruth

“Oh, God.” – Lisa   

Eight months later, Lisa is in Ruth’s apartment late one night sorting papers when Ruth comes back from testifying before a house committee for the National Endowment of the Arts. Lisa watched the testimony on C-Span.

Lisa says she heard Ruth tell the story about nearly giving up writing to work for a plumbing company. Ruth confesses to exaggerating for a cause and that startles Lisa. Then, looking around her apartment, Ruth notices that everything has been moved. Ruth is furious that Lisa has moved her stuff and answered her phone calls. Lisa says she is sorry and threatens to leave and actually walks out the door. But Ruth convinces her to come back and have dinner with her.

The play continues over the span of six years as the two exchange stories about their work and the intimate details of their lives. One giving away far too much of her life.

There are marvelous moments in this production of Collected Stories.  The actors did some very fine work and overall the director did a fine job of capturing specific moments in this play. But I have some notes.

Natalie Sutherland & April Lang

April Lang plays Ruth Steiner and does a marvelous job.  She is a beautiful woman with exquisite charm that brings her life experiences to fill the role.  She moves about the stage with great ease and fluidity living in the place that is her home.  (But there was a problem with the first ten minutes of the play as she had her back to me, and others, while speaking to her counterpart. I believe the actor should make an effort to be seen if only to establish the character.  And the actor in rehearsals should emphasize this point.) As the character, Ruth Steiner makes a terrible mistake.  She is so absorbed in her own self-importance that she doesn’t realize that she is giving away the store, that is her life’s experiences. The sharing of ideas is critical in academia and when mentoring someone.  But one should not be giving away a glorious life experienced, especially if that life is to be published. As part of the subconscious life of the character, she should be suspicious of things going on around her. Still, all in all, Lang did a wonderful job in bringing Ruth Steiner to life.

Natalie Sutherland plays Lisa Morrison and brings a nice schoolgirl charm to the role.  As the character she should jump for joy when she finds Delmore Schwartz’s envelope written to her counterpart. Lisa is very ambitious but keeps that ambition mostly under wraps, at least away from the eyes of her mentor. She is also not very forthright in her answers.  She is evasive when she speaks about going to school in New Jersey.  She is cautious and cagey when talking about the piece she published without informing her mentor. Lisa is there under false pretenses grabbing all she can get until she is found out. She is overly ambitious, ruthless, and driven and nothing will stop her from reaching her goal.  Still all this sinister stuff is subject to interpretation (and exaggeration) and one can add extra elements to reach her objective.  Overall Sutherland’s performance was very good and she did some very nice things including a cartwheel. But this performance needed a closeness that was not here on this particular night, a love so close, unbreakable, physically and emotionally.  The final conclusion will be that much more heartbreaking.   

Terri Hanauer directs this fine cast of actors. There was a bit of a problem with the opening and the actor’s back to me.  This is something I don’t quite understand especially considering the professional backgrounds of all involved.  I’m not sure all the bases were covered in this production.  I believe there is another level of deception even if the conflict is somewhat imperceptible. Also, there were moments where intentions and objective did not propel the actors forward toward their goals. This may have been an anomaly on this particular night. Also, a grand opportunity was missed when Lisa did not move the props from one place to the next looking for certain documents or papers.  Instead there are staff that move props between scenes (papers and files) back and forth. (She’s already discovered the book and the letter.) Maybe she is looking for more things.  She certainly seems to be very ambitious and showing us one extra time would not have hurt. Still, despite a few problems, there are a lot of marvelous moments in this production. I could sit and absorb the moments of this play over and over again. 

I loved Donald Margulies’ play.  It is very good read and very clever.  The two characters are in a constant battle, but for what? Superiority?  Supremacy?  The characters battle all night long and the conflict never lets up.  It is not a love fest.  One writer has the youth and ambition to write the great American novel, while the other is possibly running out of steam. Still, both have dreams to build and worlds to conquer.

The show was wonderfully produced by Executive Producer Diane Ladd and Thalia Buitron. Also, Lean Kram served as Executive Producer as well.

Josh Shaw did a tremendous job as Set Designer giving the set a look of a writers enclave. Frida Kahlo half hidden on the bookshelf, Low Dose Bayer aspirin bottle on the desk, the book holding open the window to hear the intruder, and the two chain locks on the door. There are too many details to describe but wonderful items that make up a writers studio. 

Other members of this fantastic crew are as follows:

Carey Dunn – Sound & Lighting Design
Carlos Moreno, Jr. – Production Stage Manager
Jennifer Palumbo – Sound & Lighting Operator
Tom Connolly, Roberto Montesinos, and Will Bowers – Props
Numa Perrier – Publicity & Press Photography
Brian Ali Harding, and Daniel Marin – Graphic Design

Run!  And while you are at it take your professor.

Through October 14th, 2012
Reservations:  310-477-2055

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