Every piece of writing is, according to the literary critic Harold Bloom, a mixture of homage and betrayal, an attempt by the writer to be freed from the long shadow of the writers of the past. What Bloom famously dubbed the “anxiety of influence” is one of the most salient themes of Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories,” now receiving a solid revival at the Manhattan Theatre Club starring Linda Lavin and Sarah Paulson. A thought-provoking play and excellent performances from both actresses make the production, directed by Lynne Meadow, well worth a visit.
In the play, an older Jewish writer named Ruth Stein, expertly played by Lavin, becomes a mentor and maternal figure for a non-Jewish student of hers named Lisa Peterson. The mood of the play is set from the beginning, with Santo Loquasto’s impressive set of book-lined walls, window seats, rugs and lamps. Upon her first visit, Lisa is impressed by the “real furniture and real books” in Ruth’s elegant Greenwich Village apartment, which Lisa contrasts to her own “makeshift” apartment, which she laments is “sad, completely lacking in dignity.”
Lavin, who was brilliantly acerbic in Charles Busch’s “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” also directed by Meadow, brings a bracing intelligence and a biting wit to the role of Ruth. Every roll of the eyes, wave of the hand, and kick of the feet expresses her supremely self-confident and self-aggrandizing attitude.
It is much to her credit that Paulson, who is perhaps best known for her role as Harriet Hayes in the television show, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” is able to hold her own against Lavin. As Lisa’s self-esteem grows, she becomes not just less intimidated by her teacher’s milieu, but feels entitled to borrow aspects of her teacher’s sexual life and weave them into her own fiction. When she does a reading of her first novel at the 92nd Street Y, it becomes apparent that she has “borrowed” almost word for word the story that Ruth told her of her long ago affair with an older Jewish poet, modeled on the real-life writer Delmore Schwartz.
In doing so, she takes her teacher’s advice quite literally. As Ruth has told her earlier in the play, “We’re all rummagers. All writers are. Rummagers at a tag sale. Picking through the neighbors’ discards for material, whatever we can get our hands on. Shamelessly.” Is it any surprise, then, that Ruth’s “discards” become the subject of her protégé’s art? As Eric Lott put it in the title of his seminal book on black minstrelsy, “Love and Theft” (which Bob Dylan, in a further twist, later borrowed as the title of one of his albums), inspiration and appropriation are often hard to tell apart.
Margulies is perhaps the only major American playwright who regularly treats Jewish themes in his work. Not all of his plays have Jewish content; neither the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Dinner With Friends” nor the just-staged “Time Stands Still,” does. But in some of his best works, which include “Sight Unseen,” “The Model Apartment,” “The Loman Family Picnic,” and “Brooklyn Boy,” Margulies investigates how the post-Holocaust generations of American Jews deal with the sense of loss and regret that inevitably accompanies the passage of time.
“Collected Stories” is no exception. Ruth admits that the jealousy she feels when Lisa publishes her first short story stems from a wistful longing that she had her own life to live over again. And the play’s overall Jewish themes are front and center. Lisa complains that Ruth had “all that rich, wonderful, Jewish stuff to draw on” whereas she has only “WASP culture,” or, in other words, “no culture at all.”
In any event, the issues of intellectual property raised by the play make it extremely timely given the increasing digitization of books and other media, and the questions of trademark and copyright infringement that constantly arise. As James Sims wrote last month in the Huffington Post, publishers of books and newspapers should read “Collected Stories” as a cautionary tale. Like Lavin’s character in the play, he warns, “they could quickly turn into the storied mentor that discovers their biggest fans have pilfered their own collected stories and risen to a level of notoriety without sweating a drop.”
Is nothing sacred? Then again, Jewish tradition is itself nothing if not a collection of stories that have become, rather than simply piled on top of each other like stones, braided and interwoven together.
In “Collected Stories,” Lisa shamelessly uses Ruth’s stories to advance her own career. But perhaps even the stories from our own tradition are sacred less for their content or even their perceived ownership than for their adaptability, the ways in which each generation can retell and reinvigorate them. In this sense, stories have a power that can transcend their tellers, and help perpetuate a culture and a people. n
“Collected Stories” runs through June13 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. Performances are Tuesday evenings at 7 p.m. and Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. For tickets, $57-$97, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.
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