Collected Stories

by Donald Margulies

Scene Changes – review by Jeniva Berger

How far can a writer go in using another person’s life experience for his own work? In Collected Stories, Playwright and Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies’ looks at the very heart of a relationship between a well known author and her young talented protege who is just embarking on her own career. When the play opens, an awestruck college student Lisa Morrison, arrives at the New York apartment of her instructor, author Ruth Steiner, for a tutorial. The friendship that will develop over a period of six years will end in a conflagration of emotions when Ruth is shocked to learns that Lisa has taken a story she once told her in confidence and used it in her first book. “Some things you don’t touch,” she tells Lisa.

Donald Margulies, a Yale professor, based his 1998 play on an actual incident between two authors that he found in a newspaper. The story, which percolated in his head for some time, was later transposed to his own play, Collected Stories, with some significant changes. It’s no wonder that both characters in the play can argue so effectively about artistic integrity. The beauty of Collected Stories is that beyond an all too familiar plot about an author who sees her pupil become a star while her career is winding down is that both Lisa and Ruth make perfect sense in their interpretation of how far an author can go in pushing the boundaries. Margulies makes it all the more interesting by making his them both sincere, intelligent people who despite a long term friendship, haven’t really understood each other at all.

You can’t dislike Lisa. Played by Erin Mackinnon, she’s every inch the eager, unprepossessing, self-deprecating student kneeling before her idol, until she becomes aware of her own considerable talent and discovers the knack of manipulation. She arrives at Ruth Steiner’s apartment as a badly dressed gushing college coed, effusive in her compliments to Ruth, her teacher, her Great One, the famous author of an award-winning book of collected stories who makes a living teaching creative writing at Columbia University. Hardly able to string words together in a complete sentence when she speaks, Lisa has impressed Ruth with the short story she has written and is able to talk her into taking her on as her assistant.

That’s not an easy feat. Cayle Chernin’s Ruth Steiner is a disarmingly acerbic, brutally honest and brittle Jewish New Yorker who can squash someone with a few choice words. Nuance isn’t her style, nor is she anyone’s fool. Settled in her ways and fiercely protective of her privacy, Ruth seems as contained as the Manhattan phone book, living alone for the last 30 years in her organized clutter of a an apartment, serviceably designed by Akiva Roser-Segal for the tiny stage of the Tarragon Theatre’s Extra Space.

Little by little Chernin lets Ruth’s unerring trust in her pupil soften the edges. Up to now, it’s been a master/pupil relationship with Ruth educating Lisa on the art of writing. “We’re all rummagers – all writers are, picking through the garbage, ” but when Lisa has her first short story published in a literary journal, Ruth is hurt she wasn’t told. As apt pupil slowly becomes disengaged from her mentor’s approval, Ruth bears up nobly, until trying hard to look at Lisa’s success with equanimity. “I’m jealous because you have all your life ahead of you. It’s about time, time, that’s what it’s about.”

There is nothing even tempered when Lisa’ first book comes out with the thinly disguised story about Ruth’s early romance with an renowned middle-aged poet. “You sculpt like a thief,” says the outraged Ruth. “Who asked you for a revisionism of my life? ” But the pupil has learned well, taught by a master. It’s a delicious irony from Margulies, whose keen observations on artistic license is well founded. He teaches playwriting at Yale University.

Collected Stories is a solid production directed by Sasha Wentges with two fine performances by Erin Mackinnon and Cayle Chernin and some great melancholy jazz added to the atmosphere by saxophonist Daniel Jamieson. Though the final scene of the play seems more of a oddly tempered shouting match than is necessary with Chernin demonstrating Ruth’s rancor and bitterness more than her humiliation and pain at seeing her life being turned into “pulp fiction,” it is after all Ruth’s tough survival instinct that has been compromised as much as her trust in Lisa. Collected Stories ends on the right note, even if resignation is a bitter pill to swallow.

NOW – review by Ibi Kaslik

Donald Margulies’s two-hander is heavy on the quips, but it authentically captures the literary life.

Most plays and films about the writing life are either grossly romanticized or otherwise inaccurate, and most authors would rather give themselves a lobotomy than witness the dramatization of a colleague’s hell.

So, full disclosure: it was with much trepidation that this author and reviewer approached Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies’s Collected Stories , about two writers.

Lisa Morrison (Erin MacKinnon) attains success at the expense of her loving if eternally crusty mentor, Ruth Steiner (Cayle Chernin). The story is told over a six-year period from 1990 to 1996. At the centre of the women’s union is an unruly mess of intense love and toxic jealousy that sustains the tension of the two-hander for two hours.

The script is witty and intelligent, although occasionally it feels a little like a highbrow sitcom (think Frasier with ladies).

Yet despite dialogue that’s almost too quippy and clever, MacKinnon and Chernin play off each other in a natural way.

MacKinnon’s portrayal of Lisa’s evolution from flaky grad student to assured young author is deep, believable and well paced. Chernin as the kvetching Steiner at times defaults to cronishness, but for the most part her bitchy attitude hits exactly the right notes.

What’s most interesting about Collected Stories is the writerly questions the script explores: Are writers allowed to cannibalize every aspect of their lives or are some experiences sacred? How far can a scribe go for the sake of narrative? Where is the line between fact and fiction?

In a world in which Oprah’s crucifixion of James Frey passes for literary debate, it’s refreshing to see such a true and impassioned portrayal of writers, as well as the real questions that plague them.

What Happened Was…

The Globe and Mail – review by Kamal Al-Solaylee

First dates, like inaugural productions, can be awkward affairs. In Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was . . . — a story of a first date that also launches the Toronto career of Coraggio Company.

Noonan writes honestly and freely, with an eye and ear for the cringeworthy, and it’s something that this production seems to have picked up above all else. The setup is simple: Jackie (Marie Dame), an executive assistant at a Manhattan law firm, invites paralegal Michael (Chris McCawley) for dinner at her apartment one Friday, alcohol-filled night. She’s running late; he shows up early. He clutches his bag longer than normal after he first arrives, and then holds on to his wine glass for dear life.

She is preoccupied with reheating a seafood dish she has prepared over the weekend. All and all, there’s little evidence of the rapport that they presumably enjoy in the office and plenty of nervous tension. As the evening progresses, their connection to each other is firmly established — both are outsiders and loners who aren’t where they want to be in life yet — but severely tested.

Dame (who’s also the executive producer) is a young actor with promise. A character as emotionally unpredictable as Jackie who, after all, writes blood-filled children’s stories that make Anne Rice’s fiction read like nursery rhymes, and is a fan of both Deep Purple and Air Supply. Dame displays the right neurotic sensibility.

The bursts of humour in the writing, some perceptive analysis of class in America and hints of potential in Dame lend this date some voyeuristic if awkward pleasure.

Review by Dave Morris

First dates are bad enough when you’re on them. Desperately wanting to flee from the awkward pauses, dropped cutlery and inevitable breaches of etiquette, the first date suitor grimaces inwardly even though a combination of desperation, lust and a kind of perverse optimism pins them to the chair. Why anyone would want to dramatize this excruciating spectacle is beyond comprehension, though the first third of What Happened Was gives you plenty of time to gnaw on the question. As writer Tom Noonan’s indie film-turned-play unfolds, so does the answer — because it makes for a riveting 90 minutes of honest, powerful theatre.

In spite of the fact that they work together, Jackie (Marie Dame), a reformed party girl turned executive assistant, and Michael (Chris McCawley), a secretive paralegal with a grudge against “the system,” prove incapable of getting through even the most basic conversations without verbally stumbling all over each other. The tension is palpable, which makes their brief forays into comic relief (including an inspired reading of a children’s story with more sex and violence than a Tarantino marathon) explode across the stage. Dame and McCawley communicate different moods and shifts in tone with exceptional agility, making it easy to sympathize with their characters even as they say and do profoundly stupid and self-destructive things. Dame’s Jackie struggles to repress a knot of desperation continually rising to the forefront of her mind, like an addict trying to fight off a craving only to find that there’s another one on the way.

Ironically, great as it is, What Happened Was would make for an awful play to see on an actual first date. Both Noonan’s observations and the actors’ portrayals of them are so revealing that to see it in this context would be like studying a magic trick right before seeing someone saw a woman in half. Save it for the second date, when you and your partner can marvel at its piercing accuracy.

CLASSICAL 96.3 FM – review by Paula Citron

New York playwright Tom Noonan’s “What Happened Was…” has an interesting premise. Two employees in a law office – one an executive assistant, one a paralegal – take their flourishing friendship out of the work place to a Friday night dinner at the woman’s apartment. In other words, can the same casual simpatico between the two transfer over to a first date?

Jackie and Michael are damaged people, as we find out during the course of the evening, which in turn compromises their friendship. Each has different expectations. It’s a raw, brave play, and the characters of this marginalized duo are deftly drawn, even haunting.

Marie Dame and Chris McCawley give very, very sensitive performances as Jackie and Michael, and one can’t helped being touched by their vulnerabilities. Kudos to director Christopher Warre Smets for keeping things real. This is a play of pathos, not of melodrama. Kylagh Young’s New York loft set is terrific.

The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

by Jane Wagner

The Daily Post – review by Catherine Whitnall

When it comes to portraying roughly a dozen different characters in Jane Wagner’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Marie Dame is nothing short of brilliant.

If you’re looking for signs, she’s certainly one of the brightest.

Wagner has earned numerous prestigious awards for her prescient cultural commentaries but it’s talented, skilled actresses like Dame who breathe life into those works. Without such style, panache and extensive intestinal fortitude, Search for Signs – would simply ramble on like a verbal diatribe. It would certainly be filled with sound and fury but, Shakespeare put it, signify nothing.

Dame is a tour de force which tears through this one-woman show devouring the script with an insatiable appetite as Trudy, a combination New York City bag lady and sage narrator of humanity.

An acute observer of the world with a knack for finding common sense and human values in the absurdities of modern life, Trudy takes the audience through a whirlwind tour of life on Planet Earth.

It all begins at the corner of Walk and Don’t Walk, sometime ‘around’ lunch and it’s not long before Trudy locks into your consciousness.

With the whole of the production resting solely on her shoulders, Dame flows eloquently from one character to another. Being Trudy is an exhausting, physically demanding role, yet Dame makes it appear effortless. A tweak of a facial expression here or a slightly skewed hand gesture there and suddenly Dame is a drug-addicted body builder, a snobbish society woman and – fade in, fade out – a duo of sage street hookers. The static builds again and we see Dame seamlessly transform into a teenager filled with angst and confusion and then, a gaggle of ’70s feminists, all of
whom simply want their perceptual commentary on life to be heard. And appreciated.

Dame has total control over the characters she portrays on stage. Her mastery of voice control and precision timing is fine tuned to the point where they are knife edge crisp and flawless.

It’s fortunate too, as there is little choice.

The whole piece – like the Earth and its sun – revolves around her ability to not only speed through the witty, intense and, at times, hard-hitting dialogue, but to do it all alone. She shares the stage with only a handful of props and some exquisitely placed lighting cues courtesy of lighting/sound design director Brendan Gilhuly.

Kudos especially to director James Barrett for being able to capitalize on Dame’s eloquent ability to flow through the light-speed fast-moving production without losing pacing or focus. He’s managed to give Dame enough leeway to pay justice to the script and characters, while preventing her from veering dangerously out of control.

The result is near perfect.

While the audience nears exhaustion watching the first half of Dame’s break-neck performance, her energy never seems to wane.

One has to wonder where she hides the batteries.