It's the same old story

Art stands off against morality. Guess who wins, again?

The real struggle of a writer's life is, like a battle between fleas, almost invisible. It consists of the effort to put words down on a sheet of paper. Nevertheless, there's an undeniable fascination about the lives and moral dilemmas of a writer, about the choices an artist makes to apply the morals of the outer life to the creative process.

Collected Stories

A Contemporary Theater till August 9

This is the subject of Donald Margulies' new two-hander, Collected Stories, which focuses on the changing relationship between two women writers. The setting for the play is the Greenwich Village apartment of a celebrated, if no longer particularly active, short story author, Ruth (Linda Stephens), who supplements her writings by teaching graduate students. Through the door comes the irrepressible Lisa (Kate Goehring), a floral-printed fireball of awkward energy who's long worshiped the writings of the older woman and describes her visit to the apartment as "a religious experience."

Ruth's a bit of a curmudgeon, as quick to comment on her student's Valley Girl speak and hipster dress code as she is about her writing. But it's clear that there's something about the young woman's enthusiasm, and more particularly her talent, that holds the older woman's interest. And, as she herself admits, she's lonely.

Over the six years of the play's chronology, the student-teacher relationship grows closer until they begin to view each other as peers. Lisa takes on a position as Ruth's personal assistant, then publishes her first story. When Ruth tells her student the story of her secret love affair with the great doomed poet Delmore Schwartz, the stage is set for a betrayal.

Both actors are strong and capable. Stephens is especially good with the poetic language that Ruth uses to describe her long-ago liaison with Schwartz. Although Goehring overdoes the gee-whiz aspect of her role early on, it's an effective counterpoint to her later assurance. Serious structural problems with the script, however, make it difficult going for both women.

As in his earlier play Sight Unseen (which followed the career of an unscrupulous painter from his idealistic youth to his manipulative maturity), Margulies' principal dilemma in Stories lies with the moral questions specifically faced by artists. The earlier play offered an intriguingly complex portrait of an artist whose lack of moral center led to creative deadness. In Stories, neither Ruth nor Lisa ever come across as writers who've got especially interesting things to say. When we hear an excerpt from Lisa's early work, a short story entitled "Eating Between Meals," it's difficult to understand what Ruth finds so wonderful about a bulimic first-person narrative describing a trip to a supermarket. Then again, Ruth's own wisdom about writing tends to work on the same level. "No one can teach writing," she says. She also spouts vague homilies about a writer needing to get close to her subject.

When he finally gets down to setting up his Morality vs. Art dilemma, Margulies commits a much graver sin by shamelessly stacking the deck. In the final scene between the two women, Lisa effortlessly turns all of the older woman's arguments back on her, and there's little question of where the author's sympathies lie. This is a real shame, as there's a truly interesting debate to be had about whether or not an artist is entitled to use real lives without conscience to feed fiction. But this script doesn't enter the fray.

Margulies adds insult to injury by waving the tatty rags of that shop-worn specter—A Fatal Illness—just before the play's end. At least he's embarrassed enough by this hoary cliché to try deflecting criticism by including a debate on whether or not Ruth should include the same device in a story. Advice from the peanut gallery, Ruth: Leave it out.

One final gripe. As artistic director Gordon Edelstein points out in his program note, Seattle is a town with a strong literary community. Why then are we being given a play about a literary life that considers a reading at the 92nd Street Y as the height of professional and personal achievement? If I wanted to watch the intimate lives of the New York writing set, I'd move to New York. Let's declare some independence from the cultural hegemony of the East Coast and celebrate our own artists for a change.

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