The Lisbon Traviata. By Terrence McNally. Directed by Arturo Catricala. Starring Greg Hoffman, John Schumacher, Terrence Young, and Kirk Mills. At the New Conservatory Theater, 25 Van Ness (at Market), through March 6. Call 861-8972.
When people complain about the bad effect of fiction programs on literature, they normally invoke "workshop-iness," or the leveling effect of the MFA factories; but to me the starker problem is the sheer volume of crap that's been written about being in a workshop. Stories and novels and plays about teachers teaching and writers trying to write, shot with the emotional politics of mentor and protege, use material that never would have been there to write about if the workshops didn't exist. I try to avoid this kind of thing wherever I find it, but Donald Margulies' Collected Stories was hard to avoid (at the Berkeley Rep), and it is, happily, a glint of gold in the midden of a narcissistic genre.
The play is about a shy student named Lisa who comes to a Columbia workshop headed by the famous Ruth Steiner. It's 1990, and Steiner is a legend. She belongs to the same generation and circle of writers as Grace Paley (who may or may not be her character's prototype), and her anecdotes about "beatnik Gotham" in the '50s overwhelm Lisa. The young woman starts as an ill-dressed '90s college kid, but matures rather deliberately from scene to scene. Eventually, one of Steiner's yarns about Delmore Schwartz finds itself spun into Lisa's first novel. The play has not figured out whether it's mainly about the women's relationship or mainly a discussion of plagiarism, and it ends with a raw, ringing argument that leaves both of these plot lines unresolved.
Before I get into its flaws, let me say that Collected Stories is mainly excellent. What sounds at first like an act of literary navel-consideration is really a sharp and fast-moving drama, with strong acting and absorbing talk. Richard Seyd directs with a steady invisible hand, and J.B. Wilson's set helps enormously. Ruth lives in a perfectly shabby-genteel apartment -- nice furniture, creaking door, old kitchen, a window frame that sticks. It might as well be a photograph of a real Greenwich Village walk-up.
Cristine McMurdo-Wallis also does a good job with Ruth. Her reddish hair, her worldliness, the edge on her voice, and her bitter, weary way of dealing with Lisa build a fine portrait of an intelligent New York spinster. She tells her story about falling for Delmore Schwartz in a marvelous old voice heavy with pain. She's also funny -- "Things were different when I was ovulating" -- and her emotion in the speeches that close the show works as the cathartic payoff to a script that otherwise ends raggedly. I've heard that McMurdo-Wallis fumbled some lines on opening night, but I saw her afterward and didn't notice any lack of control. To me she's the reason to see the play.
Jennifer Tighe has a tougher time as Lisa. Between scenes she has to change, drastically, from a mush-mouthed groupie student to a confident protege, and the different stages are unsubtly written. Lisa the groupie is not just annoying to Ruth but also annoying to me as a cartoon of a present-day, half-educated college kid. It's true that students in general aren't as erudite or aware as they were, say, in Ruth's generation, but after a few faux pas and awkward emotional breakdowns we really, really get the point. This is a flaw in the script and I'm not sure Tighe could play Lisa any other way. At least her performance grows subtler as Lisa grows up.
According to the program notes, Margulies modeled Collected Stories on the dispute between David Leavitt and Stephen Spender. When a scene from Spender's autobiography turned up in one of Leavitt's novels, Spender was furious, threatened to sue, and Leavitt's publisher actually shredded the novel's first edition. Roughly the same thing happens in this play. But Margulies adds some unsubtle character shading: As Lisa matures, Ruth devolves into a petty and difficult woman who resents her former student for hijacking the story about Schwartz. At one point she even accuses Lisa of being "Oedipal," which is not just heavy-handed playwriting but inaccurate. (Don't women have Electra complexes?) I think the problem is that Margulies pays more attention to the back-and-forth debate over plagiarism than he does to the vagaries of the women's relationship, so the rise and fall of the two writers becomes a framework for the debate. That's how it feels at the end, at least. Ruth and Lisa try, and fail -- on behalf of the playwright -- to settle this question of thievery.
Of course the script itself hijacks material, not just from Leavitt and Spender but also from poor Delmore Schwartz, who's probably been raided more than any writer since Shakespeare. "Bellow finished him off for everyone," Ruth says -- referring to Humboldt's Gift -- but his ghost lives on over the stage at the Berkeley Rep, and nobody seems to mind.
Another play dealing with art in New York is The Lisbon Traviata, Terrence McNally's mid-'80s melodrama about gay men and opera, now being limply revived at the New Conservatory. The good parts of Traviata are like the good parts of Stories -- engaging talk and fine acting -- but there aren't as many of them. The play opens with Mendy and Stephen listening to opera records in Mendy's sumptuous apartment, and their arguments about music stores and boyfriends and Maria Callas' best performances are, for the most part, funny. Mendy is a flamboyant older gay man who wears a silk robe and half-glasses and gets bitchy with sales clerks on the telephone. John Schumacher plays him with an energy that fuels the whole first act.
When Stephen tells him that Callas' best recording of La Traviata was at Lisbon in the 1950s, Mendy nearly creams in his robe, and starts calling around the city for a copy of the record. He just has to hear it. Stephen has a copy at home, but the weather is terrible and his boyfriend, Mike, has another man over for pizza. (Stephen and Mike are trying an open relationship.) Mendy harasses Mike on the phone until Mike agrees to bring over the record, and when he does it's the wrong Traviata. Etc.
But the happy chaos of the first act only sets up the relationship problems between Mike and Stephen. This is a letdown. Stephen is a preppyish editor for Knopf -- Mendy's straight man (so to speak), not as interesting as Mendy, and self-consciously played by Greg Hoffman. He comes home the next morning to find Mike's pizza date wandering naked around the apartment. Kirk Mills ably plays the pizza date, Paul; but Terrence Young is wooden as Michael, and whatever hot chemistry we're supposed to sense in the love triangle feels about as volatile as a loaf of bread.
The long second act can't be excused by the fact that relationships are messy, which is apparently what it wants to show, because the messiness hasn't been written or staged to interest an audience. Stephen's complaining about Michael's flagging love devolves to whining and embarrassing lines ("Why don't you want to fuck me? You used to love my ass"), and the operatic finale, with Callas' voice soaring in Lisbon and a re-enactment of La Traviata's duel, is phony and stiff. Romance, I'm afraid -- even gay romance -- doesn't always make a good story.
-- Michael Scott Moore