Taking a Life

When Donald Margulies writes at the top of his form, he is as good as any playwright going: Sight Unseen belongs in every anthology of American drama. Collected Stories is not quite that powerful, but even second-best Margulies is something to sink your teeth into and chew on for a long time after. If only this year’s revival at the Lucille Lortel came within shouting distance of last year’s premiere at the Manhattan Theatre Club.

The problem begins with the star. Uta Hagen always struck me as the poor man’s idea of an actress in the grand style: the gestures, the vocal gymnastics, the regal manner, but not the heart – or soul – of the matter. At 79, she is a prodigy of youthful energy in hoisting a hefty bundle of old tricks. A good acting teacher, her manner of performing is didactic, overemphatic (even in cutenesses), demonstrative rather than internalized.

Here she is Ruth Steiner, a successful short-story writer and creative-writing teacher, in her Greenwich Village apartment giving a tutorial to a promising but overawed graduate student, Lisa Morrison. In six scenes, we observe their growing relationship. Lisa insinuates herself into Ruth’s life by becoming her secretarial assistant, then disciple and protégée, and finally friendly rival, as she in turn publishes a volume of acclaimed short stories. She even surpasses her mentor by publishing a novel, one that appropriates Ruth’s lengthy love affair with Delmore Schwartz, so secret and sacred to Ruth that she herself never wrote about it.

But Ruth made two mistakes. She taught Lisa that a fiction writer must take her material wherever she finds it, and she gave her a detailed, though incomplete, account of her years with the much older, disintegrating poet. Without permission, Lisa has turned this into a novel; Ruth feels betrayed as writer, teacher, and friend. Their showdown is the impassioned climactic scene.

In trying to make his play more comic and dramatic, Margulies sometimes overplays his hand. The opening, as Ruth shouts instructions to Lisa beneath her window and the girl mishears everything, makes no sense, given a third-floor apartment on a quiet Village street. Next, Lisa talks less like a Columbia grad student writer than like a bubblehead (“Oh, my God, that makes like so much sense!”), and Ruth is too crusty-quirky by half, though three quarters of that is in the performance. Miss Hagen forces her voice into squeaks and growls, and slurs out enough schwas to dumbfound a phoneticist.

Yet the play becomes gripping, despite matching exaggeration by the Lisa of Lorca Simons, an unsuccessful Brooke Shields clone, and mighty overdirection by William Carden, a former Hagen student, now artistic director of her HB Playwrights Foundation & Theatre. In fact, most of the collaborators on this production are part of the HB cottage industry, and on the night I attended, even the claqueurs seemed to be HB products. The tacky and unimaginative scenery is by Ray Recht, HBPF’s resident designer: Would the artistic Ruth have such execrable motel furniture, and would her beloved books lie strewn about like the dead on a battlefield? And must the poles holding up the set be so nakedly exposed, and a cliché backdrop of neighboring brick façades distract our eyes from the actors?

But Margulies’s writing scores undeterred, as, for example, in the scene where Lisa reads from her novel to an enthusiastic crowd at the Y. Her prose is cleverly reminiscent of that by another Morrison, Toni, as it hovers between the true and the trashy, to the delight of the assembled culture vultures. Again, in the concluding agon, the playwright gives each woman strong arguments, and neither triumphs, forcing us to sort out the rights and wrongs of the case for ourselves.

Alas, even the ill-chosen piano music between scenes is overloud and irritating. And when you recall last year’s fine MTC version, you wish this seedy revival had never happened.

Taking a Life