Betrayal, seduction heighten this drama

THEATER

`Collected Stories' puts relationships to the test at Olney

Theater Review

April 22, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

Joan Didion was right -- writers are always selling someone out. And the intricate dance of seduction and betrayal between those who write and those who are written about is masterfully examined in the production of Collected Stories at the Olney Theatre Center.

Granted, it is a peculiar type of double-cross, and it occurs when an author takes the raw material of someone's life without permission and turns it into a novel -- or newspaper article. Writing is an essential activity for a healthy society for about a zillion reasons, but it also is morally ambiguous, and writers have wrestled with that dilemma, and failed to resolve it, for centuries.

The betrayals in Collected Stories are manifold, and they are set against the shifting relationship between a mentor and her protege.

Ruth Steiner is an acclaimed author who hires an assistant -- Lisa, a talented but insecure graduate student. Over six years, Ruth goes from bullying Lisa to clinging to her, becoming upset when the fledgling writer makes a career decision without first consulting the older woman. Lisa, meanwhile, gains confidence as she becomes successful. Their changing relationship is foreshadowed when director Jim Petosa has the two women literally trade places, with Lisa in the desk chair and Ruth on the couch. Later, they even swap footwear.

The friendship between teacher and student, already strained, blows up when Lisa uses Ruth's memories of a long-ago affair with a famous poet as the basis for her first novel -- an affair that Ruth has kept secret.

That's just the first of many ethical quandaries in Collected Stories.

Consider this: Donald Margulies' play stems from a real-life lawsuit. In 1993, the English poet Stephen Spender tried to block publication of a novel by American David Leavitt that was based on Spender's experiences as a young man.

And consider this: Margulies puts a real-life human being into his fictional play: poet Delmore Schwartz, whose debaucheries are detailed at length.

In other words, Margulies -- himself an acclaimed writer who teaches at Yale -- is appropriating the lives of Spender, Leavitt and Schwartz in exactly the same way that Lisa is accused in the play of appropriating Ruth's. Just whose side is he on?

It's hard to tell, because Margulies was so even-handed when he drew his characters. Ruth is no innocent victim; she herself has published a thinly veiled account of her relationship with Lisa. And Lisa's motives are questionable; at times, she seems to wield her writing as a weapon.

James Kronzer's set also is an elegant puzzle that mixes the real and surreal. Ruth's Greenwich Village apartment is depicted conventionally, except for the enigmatic phrases printed on the walls, windows and part of the stage floor. "The school in which we learn" is one phrase. "In which they burn" is another. It's as though Ruth and Lisa are living inside the pages of a book, in this case, Schwartz's poem "For Rhoda."

Halo Wines makes Ruth more maternal and less brittle than that character sometimes has been portrayed. Wines is redoubtable, to be sure, and the hint of warmth explains why she takes a shine to Lisa. But as a result, the audience is unprepared when Ruth eventually turns vicious.

When we first meet Lisa, Carolyn Pasquantonio is as awkward, attentive and perky as a robin. Pasquantonio makes Lisa's naivete funny and endearing -- when Ruth says something profound, Lisa rounds her mouth into a silent, "Oh." And yet, on her first visit to Ruth's apartment, Lisa snoops through her idol's belongings.

In the end, Collected Stories reminds me of a set of Russian nesting dolls. The more layers that are removed, the smaller the people inside become.

Collected Stories

Where: Olney Theatre, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. selected Saturdays, Sundays. Through May 19.

Tickets: $15-$35

Call: 301-924-3400

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