Good writers, according to literary critic Harold Bloom, are a source of great anxiety for their successors. Donald Margulies’s Pulitzer-nominated play from 1996, now receiving an absorbing revival by Then This Theatre, seems to take Bloom at his word.
In a handsome Greenwich Village apartment, we find celebrated short story writer Ruth (Bríd Ní Neachtain) giving feedback to her graduate student Lisa (Maeve Fitzgerald). The assignment, a story about bulimia, is read aloud for the benefit of both Lisa and the audience. Aside from structural advice (“You’ve a shitload of adjectives”), Ruth suggests that writing is utterly personal: “It’s about claiming possession.”
Director Aoife Spillane-Hinks and dramaturg Tanya Dean are well aware that displays of criticism and debate are the sly machinery of Margulies’s drama. It’s impossible to suspect any harm from Fitzgerald’s Lisa, a fascinating creature desperate for validation, and the literary devices she deploys. Ruth even takes her on as an assistant despite the clues offered by designer Hanna Bowe’s suave apartment set, adorned with meticulously coded books in confectionary colours, suggesting the writer’s life might be in better order as it is.
It’s a smartly restrained staging by Spillane-Hinks. If Ní Neachtain’s brilliantly agitated and blunt Ruth doesn’t quite soften as she watches Lisa grow into a literary success, it’s because she and the director know that their relationship is more complicated than peers. Distant but well meaning, Ruth resembles more a mother than a friend. Even when a divide emerges between them, the ache of hurt feelings are clearly present, whereas in someone else’s hands the scene could be confrontational and overblown.
Margulies’s true conflict emerges in that ever-controversial realm of authorship and parody, originality and vampirism. Lisa does a public reading of her next project and the details are those we’ve heard before. Is this a case of a writer releasing what they’ve absorbed through osmosis or just plain theft?
Ruth rages against Lisa’s book, what may be a veiled biography of her. The beauty of Margulies’s play is that if you double-back you’ll realise she paved the path for it. “Write what you know,” she advised; “If you’ve a story to tell, tell it,” she implored.
But both characters, irresolvable and divided, finally meet at that dangerous line between fact and fiction, where artifice blurs into reality. “We all play God,” reminds Lisa. But it comes at the cost of a greater transformation: an extraordinarily forged bond between great women, faded now to black.
Collected Stories is on until 25 March 2017 at the Viking Theatre in Dublin. Click here for more details.