Stage

New York Stories
Collected Stories. By Donald Margulies. Directed by Richard Seyd. Starring Cristine McMurdo-Wallis and Jennifer Tighe. At the Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2025 Addison, Berkeley, through March 5. Call (510) 845-4700.

The Lisbon Traviata. By Terrence McNally. Directed by Arturo Catricala. Starring Greg Hoffman, John Schumacher, Terrence Young, and Kirk Mills. At the New Conservatory Theater, 25 Van Ness (at Market), through March 6. Call 861-8972.

When people complain about the bad effect of fiction programs on literature, they normally invoke "workshop-iness," or the leveling effect of the MFA factories; but to me the starker problem is the sheer volume of crap that's been written about being in a workshop. Stories and novels and plays about teachers teaching and writers trying to write, shot with the emotional politics of mentor and protege, use material that never would have been there to write about if the workshops didn't exist. I try to avoid this kind of thing wherever I find it, but Donald Margulies' Collected Stories was hard to avoid (at the Berkeley Rep), and it is, happily, a glint of gold in the midden of a narcissistic genre.

The play is about a shy student named Lisa who comes to a Columbia workshop headed by the famous Ruth Steiner. It's 1990, and Steiner is a legend. She belongs to the same generation and circle of writers as Grace Paley (who may or may not be her character's prototype), and her anecdotes about "beatnik Gotham" in the '50s overwhelm Lisa. The young woman starts as an ill-dressed '90s college kid, but matures rather deliberately from scene to scene. Eventually, one of Steiner's yarns about Delmore Schwartz finds itself spun into Lisa's first novel. The play has not figured out whether it's mainly about the women's relationship or mainly a discussion of plagiarism, and it ends with a raw, ringing argument that leaves both of these plot lines unresolved.

Before I get into its flaws, let me say that Collected Stories is mainly excellent. What sounds at first like an act of literary navel-consideration is really a sharp and fast-moving drama, with strong acting and absorbing talk. Richard Seyd directs with a steady invisible hand, and J.B. Wilson's set helps enormously. Ruth lives in a perfectly shabby-genteel apartment -- nice furniture, creaking door, old kitchen, a window frame that sticks. It might as well be a photograph of a real Greenwich Village walk-up.

Cristine McMurdo-Wallis also does a good job with Ruth. Her reddish hair, her worldliness, the edge on her voice, and her bitter, weary way of dealing with Lisa build a fine portrait of an intelligent New York spinster. She tells her story about falling for Delmore Schwartz in a marvelous old voice heavy with pain. She's also funny -- "Things were different when I was ovulating" -- and her emotion in the speeches that close the show works as the cathartic payoff to a script that otherwise ends raggedly. I've heard that McMurdo-Wallis fumbled some lines on opening night, but I saw her afterward and didn't notice any lack of control. To me she's the reason to see the play.

Jennifer Tighe has a tougher time as Lisa. Between scenes she has to change, drastically, from a mush-mouthed groupie student to a confident protege, and the different stages are unsubtly written. Lisa the groupie is not just annoying to Ruth but also annoying to me as a cartoon of a present-day, half-educated college kid. It's true that students in general aren't as erudite or aware as they were, say, in Ruth's generation, but after a few faux pas and awkward emotional breakdowns we really, really get the point. This is a flaw in the script and I'm not sure Tighe could play Lisa any other way. At least her performance grows subtler as Lisa grows up.

According to the program notes, Margulies modeled Collected Stories on the dispute between David Leavitt and Stephen Spender. When a scene from Spender's autobiography turned up in one of Leavitt's novels, Spender was furious, threatened to sue, and Leavitt's publisher actually shredded the novel's first edition. Roughly the same thing happens in this play. But Margulies adds some unsubtle character shading: As Lisa matures, Ruth devolves into a petty and difficult woman who resents her former student for hijacking the story about Schwartz. At one point she even accuses Lisa of being "Oedipal," which is not just heavy-handed playwriting but inaccurate. (Don't women have Electra complexes?) I think the problem is that Margulies pays more attention to the back-and-forth debate over plagiarism than he does to the vagaries of the women's relationship, so the rise and fall of the two writers becomes a framework for the debate. That's how it feels at the end, at least. Ruth and Lisa try, and fail -- on behalf of the playwright -- to settle this question of thievery.

Of course the script itself hijacks material, not just from Leavitt and Spender but also from poor Delmore Schwartz, who's probably been raided more than any writer since Shakespeare. "Bellow finished him off for everyone," Ruth says -- referring to Humboldt's Gift -- but his ghost lives on over the stage at the Berkeley Rep, and nobody seems to mind.

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