Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories” is the final chapter of Banyan Theater’s summer season. Reduced to bare plot summary, it might seem like one of Neil LaBute’s investigations of the rotten side of human nature. To prove my point …
Ruth Steiner (Sara Morsey) is a faded literary phenomenon from the beat era. In the mid-1990s, the formerly famous author takes aspiring young writer Lisa (Kim Stephenson) under her wing. Lisa becomes her assistant, pupil and confidante. One day, Ruth shares the story of her youthful affair with Delmore Schwartz, the beat poet. Lisa steals the story and makes it the barely disguised basis of her eagerly anticipated first novel. She’s the literary phenomenon now.
Sounds vicious, doesn’t it?
In LaBute’s hands, you’d get a vial of theatrical vitriol with this material. In Margulies’ gentle hands, you don’t. His characters are just too darn nice.
Ruth has her hard edges, sure. But she does the hard work of molding and shaping an unformed young talent. At first Lisa is giddy with hero worship — a ball of pure nervous energy, talking a mile-a-minute. The lessons Ruth gives her are less about literary form and more about self-confidence. Trusting your gut, finding your voice and all that other stuff that sounds so easy but isn’t. Lisa’s ultimate appropriation is an extension of her hero worship — an homage. She didn’t mean to hurt. Honest.
This gentle betrayal unfolds in deft dialogue — brilliantly written and just as brilliantly performed by Morsey and Stephenson. Without elbowing you in the ribs, Howard Millman’s subtle direction reveals the slow erosion of barriers and psychological distance as the women get to know each other over the years. A closely observed, period-accurate set by Michael Newton-Brown and costumes by Ross Boehringer help sell you on the lived reality of those years.
True to life. But maybe not the whole picture.
It’s a great evening of strong theater. But I couldn’t shake the sense that something was missing. It’s a dense narrative, unfolding over time and compressed into two brief acts on stage. Margulies is a great writer, but he may have cut too much and sliced into logical, connective tissue.
As it stands, Lisa’s motor-mouth hero worship isn’t entirely believable in the first act. Writers, even young insecure writers, have a healthy ego in there somewhere. When Ruth pushed her, she would have pushed back — at least occasionally. And when Lisa lifted her mentor’s story in the second act, it’s a good bet that Ruth would’ve pushed back. (Lisa is a smart young woman. That should’ve occurred to her.) She needn’t be a back-stabbing LaBute heroine, but her total innocence is a little hard to buy.
Nitpicking, I know. Chances are the explanations hit the cutting room floor. (Hey, do I want a five-hour play?) So, I’ll follow the playwright’s example and forget the small stuff. The narrative drives us where Margulies wants to take us. He knows where he’s going. That’s good enough for me.
At the end of the road, we arrive at a debate. The two women attack the small, tough questions: “Do writers get an ethical pass on the rules of friendship?” “Are your friends’ and family’s anecdotes, conversations and life incidents up for grabs?” “Must writers ask permission when they grab?”
“Whose story is it anyway?” is what it boils down to.
The play leaves it to us to find the answer. That may sound facile. If the characters had been vicious, it would be, but the characters are decent. The questions they face are ours, too. Hard questions of gossip, truth and personal loyalty for most people.
Harder questions, if you happen to be a person who writes stories.
IF YOU GO
“Collected Stories” runs through Aug. 24, at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Call 351-2808 or visit banyantheatercompany.com for more information.