'Collected Stories'

Highly Recommended

Writers are by nature cannibals. They chew hungrily on their own lives. And before they've even finished licking their fingers they can be found ravenously consuming the lives of all those around them.

Nobody should know all this better than another writer.

Art, particularly in this confessional age, has quite an unrestrained appetite. Everything is grist for the mill.

Yet in Donald Margulies' provocative and deliciously insidious play, "Collected Stories," which opened Monday night at the Organic Theatre, a veteran New York writer and literary celebrity, Ruth Stein (Roslyn Alexander) unwittingly opens herself up to cannibalization by her protege, Lisa Morrison (Jessica Young). And she does so simply because she is human, and because she needs the love and admiration of a younger, gifted woman-one who might even serve as a surrogate daughter.

Depending on how you interpret Margulies' story, the older woman is ultimately either betrayed or honored by her pupil. The fact that we are left in such a moral quandary is an indication of just how effective a play this is, and what intriguing questions about art, appropriation and human interaction Margulies has posed. Such questions also were pivotal to Margulies' earlier play, "Sight Unseen," about a painter.

The real life literary parallels for Margulies' story are many. Writer Paul Theroux recently exposed his one-time friend, writer, V. S. Naipaul. And an admirer of Lillian Hellman who spent a disillusioning time working for the playwright, recently wrote a memoir of the experience. As playwright Lanford Wilson once observed, "If I hear it or see it, it belongs to me. It becomes my life too."

When Lisa first arrives at Stein's Greenwich Village apartment for a writing tutorial she is an insecure, somewhat passive-aggressivee graduate student whose Valley Girl intonations and raggy jeans belie her Princeton education and her omnivorous reading. Her first short story is self-referential but it also is good, or at least it shows real promise. Stein, a sort of Jewish Elizabeth Hardwick — sharp, elegant, just cynical enough — is tough on her acolyte. But she soon takes her on as her personal assistant, is happy for the companionship, and confides tales of her early life — notably a romance with Delmore Schwartz, the fabled, self-destructive poet who was by then a faded yet alluring figure.

Lisa's first book of short stories wins critical praise. Then she goes offto write her first novel. By the time it is to be published Ruth is ill and staring death in the face, and is clearly envious of Lisa's youth and promise. She also is furious at Lisa because her novel recounts in what is clearly Ruth's voice, 21 crucial episode in her life. Like those who be- lieve that to be photographed is to have your soul stolen, Ruth feels she has been robbed of the essence of her life and art.

Director Ina Marlowe has cast the two-character play to perfection. Young, in a subtle tour de force of a performance, makes the transition from lost girl to sophisticated, confident (and perhaps treacherous) young woman with remarkable skill. (Julie Leavitt's spot-on costumes aid and abet the transitions.) And Alexander, an actress of tremendous ease and intelligence, works her invisible tricks all along the way. The two are so good, in fact, that there is almost something eerie about the way Lisa seems to grow more radiant as the blood visibly fades from Ruth's graying form.

Hedy Weiss, theater critic

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