Donald Margulies’ 1996 play “Collected Stories” was inspired in part by a lawsuit. In 1993, poet Stephen Spender sued novelist David Leavitt, accusing the writer of plagiarizing part of Spender’s autobiography, using the information as the basis for Leavitt’s novel “While England Sleeps.”
That appropriation of intellectual property and deeply personal biography is at the heart of “Collected Stories,” which is now getting a mesmerizing and powerful production at Palm Beach Dramaworks. But it is also clear from director Paul Stancato’s artful work with actresses Anne-Marie Cusson and Keira Keeley that “Collected Stories” is in part an “All About Eve” of the literary world.
The play focuses on the relationship of Ruth Steiner (Cusson), a teacher and author of an acclaimed short-story collection, and her grad student Lisa Morrison (Keeley). During their first meeting in 1990 at Ruth’s comfortable Greenwich Village apartment, Lisa is nervous being in the presence of a woman she idolizes. She geeks out as she walks around the place while Ruth makes tea, touching her teacher’s books, grinning as she imagines the space as an incubator for the Steiner stories she adores. Knowing that Ruth is looking for a new assistant, a gushing Lisa goes for the gig, and for better or worse, she gets it.
Over the course of six years and six scenes, the women’s positions undergo a vast shift. Lisa has become a sleek rising literary star whose first novel is about to be published. Ailing and in the late autumn of her career, Ruth discovers that a deeply personal story she shared about her affair with poet Delmore Schwartz in the late ’50s has been purloined by her protégé, and that Lisa has also appropriated Ruth’s Jewish heritage for the novel. The climactic battle between the dying but intellectually fierce older woman and the self-justifying, unscrupulous younger one is worthy of Bette Davis’ towering Margo Channing and Anne Baxter’s ravenously ambitious Eve Harrington in “All About Eve.”
The Dramaworks production, so beautifully rendered by scenic designer K. April Soroko, costume designer Brian O’Keefe, lighting designer Ron Burns and sound designer Matt Corey, moves with an almost choreographed fluidity. During scene shifts, the rangy Cusson and petite Keeley glide about in near darkness, as Corey’s jazz-dominant music and Burns’ shifting lighting mark the passage of time.
When the now-defunct Mosaic Theatre presented “Collected Stories” in 2010, actress Barbara Bradshaw won her fourth best actress Carbonell Award for her performance as Ruth. Cusson’s interpretation is different but deeply compelling, and her physical transformation from a commanding and demanding woman to a more fragile soul whose life and legacy are under attack is simply stunning. Keeley takes Lisa and the audience on a fascinating journey, from eager acolyte to a literary thief with a fervent belief that she’s done nothing wrong. It’s great work all around.
“Collected Stories” runs through March 5 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday, and 7 p.m. some Sundays. Tickets cost $66 ($10 for students). To order, call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org.