Thought Crimes

Two writer friends are torn apart when a conversation becomes grist for a novel

Dec 5, 2001 at 4:00 am
Donald Margulies' 1997 play Collected Stories, now at the New Jewish Theatre, was inspired by the lawsuit brought by poet Stephen Spender against writer David Leavitt, who based his 1993 novel While England Sleeps on Spender's earlier autobiography. Spender ultimately prevented the publication of the novel on the grounds of plagiarism; less clear was Leavitt's moral obligation to Spender for using the poet's unpublished personal reminiscences as material for his own fiction.

Margulies took that incident and turned it into a two-character drama that explores the thorny issue writers sometimes face: Do they betray people by turning their life incidents and stories into subject matter? When does observation turn into theft? Along the way, Margulies examines the dynamics of friendship (which he plumbed with more depth in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner With Friends) and the importance of finding not only one's voice but someone to listen to it.

The play covers six years in the relationship between celebrated short-story writer/teacher Ruth Steiner (played by Kathleen Sitzer) and Lisa Morrison (Jennifer L. Lopasio), who starts out as Ruth's student but becomes her assistant and then her friend. When Lisa's own collection of stories is published, they become peers. When Lisa takes a story that Ruth told her about her youthful affair with the poet Delmore Schwartz and turns it into a novel, Ruth feels betrayed. Lisa's defense is that she was only using what Ruth taught her -- that a story has a life of its own, that writers owe nothing to anyone as long as the story needs to be written. Each character makes a strong case for her positions, Ruth threatens a lawsuit and the two part for good. We aren't told how the story ends; it's up to us to figure out who, if anyone, is right or wrong.

Collected Stories is a rich, well-written play but is not without its flaws. Though there are moments of conflict between the two characters as their relationship grows in the first act, by intermission there is still no hint of an overriding central dramatic question. It's not until the final scene, the confrontation between Ruth and Lisa over the content of her novel, that the action becomes dramatic; this is the scene where most plays would start. The production at the New Jewish Theatre, under the direction of Deanna Jent, has its interesting moments but never successfully navigates or overcomes the play's flaws, and at times it makes them more apparent.

Margulies excels at expressing the tiny moments between people, the ups and downs of everyday conversation that expose his characters' inner lives and make them real. Because these interactions carry most of the play, they need to be brought to life and mined for every nuance. This is where the NJT's production falls short. Although Lopasio successfully traces the growth of Lisa from naïve, gushing student to Ruth's friend in the first act, her second-act journey to peer and adversary to Ruth seems incomplete. Lopasio would have benefited from more solid direction in the final confrontation, when she does not stand up to Ruth as strongly as the script indicates and, as a result, leaves us feeling more sympathetic for Lisa than the author intended.

As Ruth, Sitzer is well cast but gives a disjointed, inconsistent performance. At times she is totally in character, but too often her concentration seems to be elsewhere -- on bits of unfocused stage business, for example -- rather than interacting with the only other person onstage.

The set, designed by Thomas Quintas, also seems ill conceived. The cramped Greenwich Village apartment of a famous writer would have a thousand more books, and there would be no empty space on the shelves for things such as plants and knickknacks.