Imagine bookshelves laden with hundreds of titles, art objects, photographs, and well-placed plants juxtaposed by a sitting area, a window with a brick wall, and a table for two, and you enter the world of Ruth Steiner’s New York apartment, where the creative writer (played by a compelling Kim Tobin-Lehl) at the center of award-winning playwright Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories has lived for decades. It's the perfect space to watch Margulies' characters tackle the various issues—literary esteem, the teacher-student relationship, the inherent insecurities of artistic creation in the first place—dealt with in the 4th Wall Theatre’s production, running now through June 8.
Kevin Rigdon’s spot-on set and lighting design draws us into the world of a short story writer whose curmudgeonly ways are challenged when a fawning grad student named Lisa Morrison (Reagan Elizabeth) enters her emotionally isolated life. Sure, Ruth teaches, appears before congressional committees, engages in the literary world to an extent. But she is mostly alone, emotionally distant, and deeply affected by her past.
No wonder she keeps her guard up: when you are an artist, there is always someone who wants a piece of you, and the title Collected Stories acts as an understatement regarding how our lives can be “used,” in the most exploitative ways imaginable, by the artists around us. That might not be so bad, and maybe even vaguely flattering, except when the person who “collects” your story is supposed to be a friend. This is a relationship play, dramatizing how quickly one can go from a lowly graduate student to an impertinent ingrate. It’s hard to watch.
The blankets and pillows in Ruth’s sitting area are no comfort for Lisa, a suck-up who is so obsequious toward the famous and older Ruth that it truly defies belief. She shows up at Ruth’s apartment, stating that she feels like “Alice through the looking glass” all starry eyed about studying with a writer she admires so much. Ruth gets cranky listening to Lisa fawn and flatter her, constantly interrupting Ruth’s attempts to critique her story called “Eating Between Meals” and it’s understandable.
Lisa doesn’t seem all that interested in learning. Instead, she pushes herself into Ruth’s life by almost demanding to become her assistant. Ruth concedes, but the play isn’t even very far along, and it’s already clear Lisa has no regard for normal boundaries. Her claims of insecurity don’t ring true with her insistence and entitlement, and I must admit that while Ruth is the cranky professor, at least she is funny, but I found Lisa to be a hard character to take. The word “insufferable” comes to mind.
Despite claiming that studying with Ruth is “a religious experience,” Lisa doesn’t have much piety regarding Ruth’s privacy. As she works more for Ruth, Lisa blurs more boundaries: she rearranges Ruth’s desk, critiques Ruth’s choice to forgo an answering machine, all while brown-nosing constantly. She even nosily finds a letter from the tragic American poet and short story writer Delmore Schwartz in a book on Ruth’s shelves, a development that drives the plot of this work.
Her intrusive questions regarding Ruth’s experiences with Schwartz when she was in her twenties (back when the real Schwartz was living in Greenwich Village and in declining health from alcoholism and mental illness) serve as a pivot in which Ruth lets her guard down and reveals the deep feelings that she had for him. But instead of being satisfied with the compliment of Ruth confiding in her, Lisa uses the information to write a novel using Ruth’s story, “collecting” it under the claims of paying “homage” to Ruth. But it is not convincing. Lisa changes from the grad student who won’t shut up to an ostensible “friend” and even critic of Ruth, proving the adage that no good deed goes unpunished. Lisa goes from the most ridiculous needy student (Ruth says to her during her first tutorial “Are you going to survive this tutorial or are you going to require oxygen?”) to a smug, superior critic of her mentor’s work. It doesn’t entirely track as character development.
Margulies might think this is standard fare for the academic world, but I’m in academia and I assure you, it is not. One gets the feeling that the playwright wants us to consider both sides of some artistic property coin, but Lisa’s borderline sociopathic insensitivity makes Ruth’s self-centered moments and her harsh retorts seem like no big deal.
Ruth states that art is a way to “exaggerate the truth,” but in this case I think Margulies’ exaggerations of the stereotypical eccentric professor and the doubt-riddled grad student actually serve to undercut the interesting points he brings up about artistic license and property, and the challenges of mixing the professional with the personal, especially in emotionally fraught artistic endeavors. When Lisa accuses Ruth of taking “pride in being difficult,” that is the first time I believe she might be able to write fiction. Ruth, over the course of the play, has shown that yes, she is difficult, but she has her reasons, and they have very little to do with pride.
The most interesting part of the play is a quasi-debate about Woody Allen’s infamous affair with his young stepdaughter—something that might be relevant in additional ways amid the “#MeToo” movement. But Ruth’s confessions about being a young girl in love with an older artist are compelling. She defends Woody Allen in the sense that she thinks that he should have a private life—a value that Lisa will brutally ignore.
Tobin-Lehl brings a lot of depth to a character whose brittle exterior serves as an armor for her past losses—in particular, her loss of Delmore Schwartz, whose book In Dreams Begin Responsibilities is an important allusion in the play. Ruth isn’t just cranky and impatient. She was a young romantic, a “nice Jewish girl” in the late fifties—an exciting time for literature in New York, in which “poetry” was her “love” and “romance” her “religion.” The real life Schwartz’s infidelity, descent into madness, and his death in 1966 (sadly, no one claimed his body, not even the fictional Ruth in this play) as related to Ruth’s time with him are traumas that explain so much about Ruth, and to see her protege show so little regard for her experiences also reveals a huge divide between generations.
Overall, Reagan Elizabeth does an admirable job with a tricky character who had many grating qualities, which makes sense since the part was seemingly created by the playwright to push the buttons of audience members. I found Lisa unlikable, but Elizabeth’s choices revealed the complex relationship the character had with her mentor, Ruth.
Written in 1996, the play spans from 1990 to 1996, but it has a point that feels all too relevant to today’s society. Lisa represents a younger generation that fails to see the value of privacy, indulging in the revelation of the autobiographical and the biographical instead, no matter the cost. She doesn’t see the wisdom in Ruth’s statement that for art, “there are some things you don’t touch.” But the audience can appreciate this point of view and the merit in calling Lisa’s generation of writers “the new lost generation.” The message Ruth is trying to convey is lost on Lisa.
Margulies will leave you with lots to consider: especially the notion that the artistic ego, which has “fears of being hopelessly conventional” may really just be another kind of “burglar”—just one with a better vocabulary. It’ll make you think twice before you spill your guts to another person, especially someone with a pen in hand.
Collected Stories runs through June 8 at Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Sprint St. Visit 4thwalltheatreco.com. for more information. Tickets from $17.