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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
In opera and ballet, the overture serves three principal purposes: to set the mood; to create themes that will resonate later; and to provide the orchestra with a solo -- a moment in which it shares the audience's attention with no one. This production of Donald Margulies' Collected Stories, technically a revival even though the original Manhattan Theatre Club version (CurtainUp's review, which provides some details not repeated here, is linked below) appeared scarcely more than a year ago, also begins with an overture. In this case, however, it is not supplied by the orchestra we hear on the radio in the Greenwich Village apartment of Ruth Steiner (Uta Hagen). Instead, it is a virtuoso solo: Hagen masterfully establishing mood and theme without making a sound.
The unusual step of reviving a play that still bears its "new" label can be easily explained. When the legendary Hagen, at age 79, announced it was a work that could coax her back onstage, producers wasted no time. She could have picked any vehicle she wanted; that this one was a runner-up for last year's Pulitzer Prize made it so much the better.
It's fairly obvious why she found it so appealing. Ruth is a woman Uta can understand. Both are teachers as well as doers; they are of the same generation; they even followed the same trajectory -- from midwestern upbringings to lives they made for themselves in Greenwich Village. Moreover, Ruth's six year relationship with Lisa (Lorca Simons), student, assistant, protégé, friend and, ultimately, flattering betrayer, is a hornet's nest of emotions and a treasure trove of ambiguities.
What distinguishes Hagen from less luminous practitioners of her craft is that she does not merely perform, she creates. As her Playbill biography terms it (in reference to her Tony-winning role as Martha in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe), she "shapes" roles. The "overture" referred to earlier, silent moments in which the words of Donald Margulies have yet to interfere, demonstrates that it is Ms. Hagen who is in control here. Even when Lisa appears and conversation starts to flow, it is still Hagen's calibrated motions that are telling the story: how her eyes look, how her mouth is held, how her hands extend, how her body reacts. The script, notwithstanding its reputation, seems surprisingly trite and predictable by comparison.
Margulies has written a play which was prompted by poet Stephen Spender's plagiarism suit against David Leavitt. But the play strips away the legal controversy in that case. Ruth never wrote her story; she just shared it with Lisa. So there is no plagiarism, and we are left with the tougher question: whether confidences shared between friends (and that is what Ruth and Lisa have become by the mid-point of their relationship) are, morally and ethically, fair game as the source for literature.
In the era of "tell-all" biography, and post-Primary Colors, there are certainly more interesting ways of framing this controversy than the one Margulies has chosen. He has also stacked the deck, feeding Ruth lines early on that can substantiate every defense Lisa offers during their final, explosive confrontation. In the end, Ruth's moral outrage seems as disingenuous as Lisa's surprise that Ruth doesn't experience "satisfaction for being so good a teacher".
Happily, it really doesn't matter, because Hagen, with the aid of her director, William Carden, has found another, more important, story. "It's about time, about what happens when one, late in life, throws off the comfortable blanket of self-satisfaction and confronts the needs, regrets and losses of one's life. In Lisa, Ruth sees opportunities: those had and those passed.
Lorca Simons is not merely along for the ride. Hagen's performance, in fact, depends mightily on the emotional integrity of Simons. From the sort of naive awe with which Lisa, the young student, first appears in Ruth's apartment, to the genuine respect and devotion that later materializes, to the harsh, calculated yet embarrassed commercial reasoning that launches her celebrity, Simons' portrayal seems rooted and true. She does not shrink from the pairing.
Not unexpectedly, regardless of any other considerations, this remains "The Uta Show". And if Ms. Hagen is thought of as the great teacher, her lessons are not limited to her acting classes. From this performance, we can all learn to locate a high water mark, against which all putative legends can be measured. This is an open but not unlimited run; don't wait to get your education.