Gloucester Stage, Gloucester, Massachusetts. Directed by Eric Engel
A two-person — two-woman — play about a mentor-student relationship that blossoms and then goes terribly awry. Ruth is an established writer of short stories and a teacher of creative writing in the Columbia graduate program. The student, Lisa, is a Princeton graduate and a talented writer of fiction who begins as Ruth’s student, applies to be and is appointed her general factotum, begins to publish stories, is noticed, writes a novel that is accepted for publication by Viking, reads a segment of it at the 92nd Street Y, and in the process, having appropriated Ruth’s experience (told to Lisa with much élan), alienates her quite completely. Thus the story of a happy friendship that goes irretrievably sour, a story about the ruthless (sorry) appropriation of writer-scavengers of other people’s lives and property which they shamelessly make their own — and occasionally pay very dearly for in broken human relationships.
Ruth, the basic irony of the play allows us to surmise, has taught her attentive pupil all too well. Telling the story — even orally, to another writer, is a form of virtual publication, since it releases that story as an experience that someone else can make something of. In the process of a budding friendship and a blossoming collegial relationship, Ruth reveals the hidden part of her past, a love affair with the then already over-the-hill poet Delmore Schwartz, an experience that Ruth characterizes as a “glimpse of heaven” (the gist of the phrase, at any rate). Lisa proceeds to fictionalize Ruth’s encounter with the poet as the opening sequence of her new novel — which Ruth reads and, predictably, reacts to in stunned, then vindictive, fury. She has already contacted her lawyer when Lisa, who has gone to some lengths to distance herself from Ruth and her oppressive, intimidating influence, having absented herself for over two years (during which time Ruth has become ill — we think, perhaps, with cancer, to judge from the turban-like hat that has replaced her hair), returns on the night of her triumph at the Y to find herself at first shut out of Ruth’s apartment and then, once reluctantly admitted, excoriated mercilessly for having violated Ruth’s trust and love. The final scene ends with Ruth definitively sending Lisa away. “Go home.” Lisa: Ruth … Ruth: go home. (Lisa exits)
That sounds conclusive enough, but we want another scene, and want it quite desperately, the scene in which this seemingly irremediable split is repaired — or, at the very least, more commonly acknowledged. A woman near me, on the way out, asked “When is the next installment?” I think I understand the reason for the sense of penultimacy (is that a word? It describes the situation rather well, dramaturgically speaking). I think it has to do with the director — who is young (I saw him, and he is mid-thirties at most) — not having enough insight into the character of the younger of the two women, Lisa. She remains a sympathetic character throughout, and I believe this is a sentimentalizing of the character as conceived by the playwright. There are signs early on that Lisa has a gift for penetrating insight into human character, but signs also that she is one of those people who don’t like to let their left-hand know what their right hand is doing. The proof of this pudding occurs in the final scene, the out-shouting-the-other showdown, in which Lisa professes to be puzzled — “innocent” that she is — over why Ruth would react so nearly hysterically to what she evidently feels is a profound breach of privacy and equally deep betrayal of the intimacy (sororal, it seems, and not sexual) that has developed and nurtured their relationship up to a certain point. At a certain point, after a momentary pause, Ruth asks Lisa what reaction Lisa expected her to have to this. Lisa’s answer — she thought that Ruth would be pleased and proud that Lisa had used this material to such great advantage — is, I thought, grossly disingenuous. How could it be that this very talented young woman, with her gift for adept and insightful (a neologism, but there you are, it’s a living language) character analysis, could be so hopelessly dense when it came to figuring out the baseline of the most important personal relationship of her life? The director somehow, somehow, doesn’t notice the disingenuity of Lisa’s response. If he had noticed it, and suggested to this talented actress Karin Webb that her character was playing her right hand at the expense of the left, it would have made a lot more sense.
— because I think Donald Margulies does see to the heart of this character, just as he sees to the heart of the embittered older mentor, Ruth; and what he sees there is the same vampire-like instinct in Lisa that he has been at such pains to create in Ruth — who herself has been at real pains to inspire, or to coax it into active state, in her student, Lisa. The thematic valences of this play are, after all, fairly clear: like mother, like daughter. I have to say, it’s a telling point that Lisa’s undergraduate education was done at Princeton, that bastion of faux-gentility where people become passed masters of that left-hand / right-hand chicanery. (I saw that, and hated it, while I was there getting a very good PhD, and was very happy to leave it afterwards.)
In other words, the director didn’t see — or Margulies doesn’t make sufficiently clear in the script — that Lisa is a chip off the old block, and that Ruth didn’t see that she was educating her student to rise up and sink her teeth into Ruth’s neck. It takes an uncommon director to be able to coax out of an actress as potentially able as Karin Webb a performance in which she becomes an arch hypocrite who can’t acknowledge her own hypocrisy.
As it was, we were tricked into thinking, for the moment, that Lisa was Goody Two-shoes brought up to date — to the detriment of the arc of the play overall. Neither of these characters is especially lovable, and it was a fault — of nature, perhaps, but a fault nonetheless — that Eric Engel let himself be bamboozled into thinking otherwise.