The Anxiety Of Influence

The Anxiety Of Influence

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Does our experience belong inalienably to us, or should it be available to others to make into art?

In Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories,” which opens next week at the Manhattan Theatre Club, a famous middle-aged writer, Ruth Steiner, takes on one of her fawning students, Lisa Morrison, as her protégé. But when the young acolyte takes aspects of her teacher’s love life and weaves them into her own work, the relationship between the two becomes fractured irreparably. Tony Award-winning actress Linda Lavin stars as Ruth, with Sarah Paulson (“Still Life,” “Killer Joe”) as Lisa. Lynne Meadow, who also directed Lavin in Charles Busch’s “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” takes the helm.

Margulies, who often incorporates Jewish themes in his work, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Dinner With Friends,” as well as this season’s “Time Stands Still,” which just ended its run at the MTC. His other plays include “Sight Unseen,” “Brooklyn Boy,” “The Model Apartment,” and “The Loman Family Picnic.”

“Collected Stories” premiered at the South Coast Repertory in 1996 and at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1997; Maria Tucci and Debra Messing appeared in the original New York cast. Just a year later, the play opened again in New York; Uta Hagen played Ruth at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, in a run that lasted for more than 200 performances. Lavin, however, is no stranger to the role; she has played Ruth both in a Los Angeles production in the late 1990s and in a 2002 PBS version.

In a telephone interview, Margulies recalled that he first got the idea for the play when he read about the successful lawsuit filed by Sir Stephen Spender against the American writer David Leavitt, who had published a novel based on a chapter in Spender’s memoir. Margulies remains, he said, “intrigued by these issues of influence,” which he sees as constitutive of many forms of contemporary art; hip hop, for example, “takes from other sources and incorporates their themes and bits of sound.” He decided that the character of Ruth, whom he compared to such real-life writers as Grace Paley and Cynthia Ozick, should be anchored in the “Jewish milieu” of the postwar intelligentsia and literary scene in New York.

Lavin was always the playwright’s first choice for the role of Ruth. Her “terrific intelligence and wit” shines through, Margulies said, as she “immerses herself totally in the role.” Paulson, who beat out dozens of other actresses to play the ingénue, wields a “formidability and intelligence that enables her to hold her own with a force such as Linda.” As a result, “the audience’s alliances keep shifting from moment to moment.” The privilege of seeing these actresses battle it out on stage, Margulies noted, is, quite simply, a “rare and wonderful thing.”

“Collected Stories” opens next Wednesday, April 28, at 8 p.m., 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 matinees on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2 p.m. For tickets, $57-$97, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit

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