Behind `Stories' are varied ideas

Drama: With its many themes and intense character development, `Collected Stories' makes you think.

October 25, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

What happens when "write what you know" - that classic bit of literary advice - turns into "write what someone else knows"?

That's the central question explored in Donald Margulies' thought-provoking drama Collected Stories, receiving a skillful area premiere under Suzanne Pratt's direction at Theatre Hopkins.

Margulies is probably best known as the author of the 2000 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Dinner With Friends, which was recently telecast on HBO. Like that play, Collected Stories deals with the theme of betrayal, but area theatergoers who remember the back-to-back 1994 productions of Margulies' The Loman Family Picnic (Center Stage) or Sight Unseen (Olney Theatre Center), will also recognize the themes of parent-child relationships and artistic honesty.

As all this talk of themes suggests, Collected Stories is very much a play of ideas. What keeps it from becoming a staged debate is that it's also an intense character study - an intergenerational look at an older, esteemed New York short story writer and her talented student.

Judy Shannon plays Ruth Steiner as a literary lioness who has spent so many years roaring, she barely remembers how to purr. Ruth is the kind of New York character who prides herself on being cantankerous but who's bright and gifted enough to get away with it.

In contrast, her 20-something graduate student, Lisa Morrison, is such a fawning acolyte, she baldly admits that studying with Ruth is "like a religious experience" and that she feels privileged "to be breathing the same air."

Sycophancy doesn't hold much weight with Ruth, but Lisa's talent does. At first, Ruth can't believe this disheveled, flighty chatterbox - played to a talkative "T" by Lisa Walsh - is the serious student whose class work she admires. But Lisa rapidly insinuates herself into Ruth's life, becoming her assistant and, before long, the daughter Ruth never had. In the process, Lisa proves to be not only an efficient helper but also a quick study.

There's probably nothing Ruth says that Lisa doesn't take to heart, particularly such nuggets as: "What is art if not an exaggeration of the truth?" and "You can't censor your creative impulses because of the danger of hurting someone's feelings."

The action spans six years during which Lisa's career takes off and Ruth's health declines. The script's chief shortcoming is that there's no real sense of these women's lives outside the play. The one crucial exception is a relationship Ruth had in her 20s with the late poet Delmore Schwartz, who was then twice her age. Ruth's revelation of this relationship is her closest moment with Lisa - until, that is, Lisa appropriates Ruth's story for her own literary ends.

Margulies was inspired to write Collected Stories by the real-life contretemps that arose in 1993 when author David Leavitt based a novel on an event chronicled by poet Stephen Spender in his autobiography. By changing the details, Margulies created a drama that examines not only inspiration vs. appropriation but also the limits of friendship, the invasion of privacy, the conflict between artistic and personal loyalty and, most basically, the nature of trust.

Of course, it could be argued that Margulies appropriated the Leavitt-Spender story to create Collected Stories. And that's exactly the sort of argument that makes this play so intriguing.

Theatre Hopkins performs in the Merrick Barn on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:15 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 18. Tickets are $12 and $15. Call 410-516-7159.

`Todd' and more `Todd'

Tony Award-winners Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Baranski will star in Sweeney Todd, the opening production of the Kennedy Center's Sondheim Celebration in Washington, beginning May 10.

Mitchell, who won a Tony for Kiss Me, Kate, will play Todd, the demon barber. The actor, who also originated the role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the Broadway musical Ragtime, last appeared at the Kennedy Center in March when he starred in the pre-Broadway production of August Wilson's King Hedley II.

Baranski, who won Tonys for The Real Thing and Rumors (and appeared at Center Stage early in her career), will portray Mrs. Lovett, the baker who turns the barber's prey into meat pies. Sweeney Todd is one of six Stephen Sondheim musicals that will be produced by the Kennedy Center next year. It will be performed in rotating repertory through June 30. Tickets cost $29-$70 and go on sale Feb. 11. For information, visit kennedy-center.org/sondheim.

Speaking of Sweeney Todd, what could be better Halloween fare? With this in mind, Sweeney Todd in Concert will air on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) at 9 p.m. Oct. 31. The staged concert, recorded in San Francisco in July by KQED Public Broadcasting, stars George Hearn and Patti LuPone, accompanied by the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus.

Along with Hearn and LuPone, the cast also includes most of the other principals from the May 2000 New York Philharmonic concert produced in celebration of the composer's 70th birthday. The New York version was released as a double CD last year; now you can see the performances that made the recording a must-have for Sondheim fans.

`Pajama' party

Presenting a post-show cabaret has become a common practice when Center Stage produces a musical, and the current production of The Pajama Game is no exception. On Friday, Nov. 2, from approximately 11 p.m. until 12:30 a.m., the Pajama Game cast, many of whom have Broadway credits, will present a cabaret to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Admission is $5. (Theatergoers attending Pajama Game that night will be admitted free to the cabaret, but donations are welcome; tickets to the Nov. 2 performance of Pajama Game are $40.) For information, call 410-332-0033.

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