Opportunity Knocks

Sean Mitchell is an occasional contributor to Calendar

In his acclaimed play of five years ago "Sight Unseen," Donald Margulies drew a provocative profile of a voguish contemporary painter whose superficial success masked a fear that his powers of inspiration had disappeared with his youth and a particular youthful romance. It was a smart play about art and celebrity culture, as well as about missed connections in our time and old wounds in the chest that never heal completely. A big off-Broadway hit in 1992, it has since played in resident theaters around the country.

Margulies, a native of Brooklyn who lives in New Haven, Conn., and teaches playwriting at Yale, wrote "Sight Unseen" as a commission for South Coast Repertory, where it had its world premiere in 1991. Now, he returns to South Coast with his first full-length play since "Sight Unseen," titled "Collected Stories," which opens on the Second Stage on Friday.

"Collected Stories," also commissioned by the theater, is a two-character play about female writers separated by a generation but locked in a tempestuous mentor-protege embrace. One is a semi-famous short-story writer and teacher and the other her adoring graduate student and disciple who, without her idol's permission, appropriates as material for her first novel a confidentially revealed long-ago affair the older woman had with poet Delmore Schwartz.

Like "Sight Unseen," the play is in part an investigation of what goes on behind the scenes of creativity, and it's not all pretty by any means. "Collected Stories" is an extended argument about the sort of moral issues raised when writers trespass on the lives of others in pursuit of art.

"I think all artists are in a sense opportunists," Margulies says one evening after a rehearsal in Costa Mesa. "As Ruth says in the play, 'We're all rummagers at a tag sale. We take what we can use.' " In the playwright's scenario, set in Greenwich Village, Ruth (Kandis Chappell) is the older writer; her student and literary star-to-be is named Lisa (Suzanne Cryer).

"I don't personally see Lisa as a venal person," he says. "I don't think she thinks she's exploiting Ruth. I think she thinks she is offering a testimonial to her."

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Under the circumstances, it seems natural to ask what nonfictional lives, if any, Margulies has borrowed for his own fictional purposes. When "Sight Unseen" opened in New York, speculation had it that Jonathan Waxman, the artist-charlatan of the play, was based on painter Eric Fischl. Others saw Julian Schnabel as the role model. Margulies denies either was the case.

Nor is the Ruth of "Collected Stories" a thinly disguised version of Grace Paley or any other prominent New York writer, he says, well aware that such gossipy guessing will probably ensue when the play opens at the Manhattan Theatre Club early next year.

"People are always looking for 'the truth,' trying to outsmart the writer," he says. "In 'Sight Unseen' the point was to create a character in literature who could exist in today's art scene, who would hobnob with the people I was being accused of writing about. I think that may be true here as well. It may be one of the pitfalls of writing about an artist in a convincing way."

The seed of "Collected Stories," he says, was in fact planted in his mind by his reading about the bloody literary battle fought a few years ago between young writer David Leavitt and aging English Poet Laureate Stephen Spender. Leavitt's 1993 historical novel "While England Sleeps" took as one of its unattributed sources an episode in Spender's 1951 autobiography that dealt with a love affair the poet had with a young man who went off to the Spanish Civil War. When Leavitt's book was published, critics recognized similarities between the novel and the autobiography, and Spender, charging plagiarism, was successful in having Leavitt's book suppressed in England, then recalled in America until the offending passages were removed.

In the essay he wrote for the New York Times about the affair, Leavitt quoted Oscar Wilde in saying, "The true artist is known by the use he makes of what he annexes, and he annexes everything."

"I saw a play in it," Margulies says. "I saw a dramatization of the conflict between youth and old age as played out between these two professionals in a way that I hadn't seen before onstage. In my appropriation of the story, I then used elements that had been of interest to me thematically--Delmore Schwartz being one of them and how Delmore Schwartz has been used in literature no longer as a biographical figure but as a literary icon. And I began to see Schwartz as yet another symbol of the faded Jewish intellectual life. So things like that began to fall into place."

He changed the gender of the two writers and made them not just known to one another but emotionally connected in order to up the stakes.

The resulting play, in his view, is about "the nature of art and moral responsibility, fame, how fame affects the arts, how we take experience and turn it into art. Is it possible to be a good artist and a moral person?

"And I would broaden it beyond writers. It's about the creative process: How do you take life experience, memory and storytelling and weave it into something else, and the price you pay for that, the loss involved or the betrayals involved in doing that."

In an early scene in the play, Ruth instructs her pupil to be fearless in writing about her own family, quoting combat photographer Robert Capa, who once said, "If it isn't good enough, I didn't get close enough."

"And the same could be said for fiction," Ruth says. "You've got to get in there and shoot."

Being merely human, however, Ruth manages to forget this advice when Lisa later turns the camera on her.

In his own life and career, Margulies, 42, says he was able to get over this same psychological hurdle relatively early because his parents died when he was in his 20s. "Which probably contributed both to my introspection and my courage--the kind of fearlessness that comes out of orphanhood. When you've lost your parents, it doesn't become that daunting to take risks creatively."

His early plays were indeed about his Brooklyn Jewish family, or "the Brooklyn battleground," as he describes it. In probably the best known, "The Loman Family Picnic," his alter ego is an 11-year-old boy who's writing a musical-comedy version of "Death of a Salesman" in order to deal with what's happening in his own family.

"As I've gotten older and more established, I feel a kind of exciting shift occurring in terms of the things that interest me as a writer," Margulies says. "Everything up until 'Sight Unseen' tended to deal with the family from the point of view of the artist son. Now, I'm not the son writing plays, I'm the man and father writing plays.

"I think I probably could not have written this play before I was a teacher, and I probably would not have been drawn to the subject matter before I became a parent, which was 4 1/2 years ago. 'Collected Stories' deals with the surrogate parent-child relationship that exists in a mentor-protege relationship, and now, rather than seeing it solely from the youthful point of view, I feel at this stage that I'm seeing both sides with much more balance."

The issues of the play, while not new, seem very much in the air at the moment, touching on the question of intellectual property and ever problematic rules of fiction, which allow stories (and sometimes even their authors) to be both "real" and imagined, producing unforeseen consequences. Joe Klein, of course, masqueraded at his peril as Anonymous while fictionalizing the Clinton presidential campaign in "Primary Colors." The late California writer Dan James took the notion of literary persona as far as one can take it when he wrote the much-praised novel "Famous All Over Town," pretending to be a young Chicano author named Danny Santiago. These kinds of deceptions, while born of literary purpose, have a tendency to upset some people when they are unmasked.

Lisa Peterson, who is directing "Collected Stories," believes the play resonates with the rising sound of "Who has the right to tell whose ethnic story? I think the whole country is trying to figure this out."

Says Margulies: "Somehow, [the territory of the play] is strangely linked to political correctness, I think. It has something to do with people now claiming ownership of their own experience. And being extremely protective of it."

Peterson calls the play's ending "heartbreaking . . . but truthful, difficult but somehow the only ending that the play could have."

"If we're doing our job correctly," Margulies says, "we will present the audience with a kind of Shavian argument--I think of 'Mrs. Warren's Profession,' which is an argument between two women over economics, essentially, where the audience will shift its alliances back and forth: 'She's right.' 'No, she's got a point.' 'No, she's got a point.' I do think it's insoluble, but it's really interesting to hear it played out. I'm not a writer who likes tidy conclusions, because I don't believe in tidy conclusions. The conclusion won't have been drawn for the audience. There are no villains in my plays. There are people who behave and think incomprehensively--but humanly. I think that's true here."

A two-character play might be said to be the essence of argument, as drama is sometimes defined.

"There'd better be conflict," Margulies says, slightly amused, when he hears this. "Not in recent years have I attempted a two-character play, but I rather like the challenge of it. It's hard--a multi-scene play that spans six or seven years. We're basically eavesdropping on these two women as their relationship evolves over this pivotal period of time for each of them.

"I do think that seeing them over time is something that maintained my enthusiasm for the form. I think if I just had two people sitting around talking for two hours, I would have had a helluva time. But time intrudes. Time is the third character in this play essentially. Because time is having this effect on each of them and their powers. One is gaining and one is diminishing. The ground is constantly shifting under them, and that's compelling to me."

Margulies, an Easterner right down to the tweed sport coat he is wearing on this hot October day, has developed an unmistakable Southern California connection through his South Coast commissions, extended by its dramaturge, Jerry Patch, who worked with him on "Collected Stories" at the Sundance Playwrights Conference in Utah last year. But even before "Sight Unseen," his play "The Model Apartment" was first staged at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1988. (It didn't reach New York until last year, when a production directed by Peterson won him his second Obie Award.)

He remembers how odd it was to hear about Hollywood people flying to New York to check out "Sight Unseen," either unaware it had first been done at South Coast or uninterested until the imprimatur of New York success had been bestowed upon it. (It's the sort of cultural irony that you would not be surprised to see noted in a Margulies play.)

He has written a dozen screenplays, none of them produced but paid for by companies representing Robin Williams, Bruce Willis and other Hollywood players.

"I enjoy screenwriting," he says. "I find that I use a different part of my brain. I do long for the return of the craft of screenwriting, judging by the current output compared to the movies I grew up loving and seeing. There just seems to be a vast difference today and a terrible decline."

In discussing the somewhat harsh, untidy ending of "Collected Stories," he jokes that "the movie version would have some sort of reconciliation."

And more than likely it would not be written by him.

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"Collected Stories," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Opens Friday. Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Dec. 1. $18 to $39. (714) 957-4033.

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