Linda Lavin, Sarah Paulson
Following Time Stands Still earlier this year, Manhattan Theatre Club’s spring season showcasing the plays of Donald Margulies continues with a top-notch production of Collected Stories, a taut, fascinating two-hander that was given its New York premiere in 1997, brought to vivid life in this current production by actresses Linda Lavin and Sarah Paulson.
The play begins with a simple meeting. Lisa Morrison (Paulson) has arrived at the apartment of the eminent writer Ruth Steiner (Lavin), her grad school writing professor, who has called her over to discuss her most recent short story, a flawed but promising semi-autobiographical piece about eating disorders.
Lisa, who’s always admired Ruth’s writing (in fact, she inspired Lisa to write in the first place), acts like a nervous, overgrown schoolgirl, fawning over her mentor while simultaneously fearing her. In the play’s first scene, Ruth hints at a personal assistant position that’s opening up, and Lisa snaps at the opportunity, though she can’t possibly comprehend how her decision to apply will affect their lives.
Neither party content for Lisa to be merely an assistant, Ruth becomes, on top of it all, a mentor to Lisa. Following some minor spats, eventually Ruth begins to trust Lisa, even asking her opinions of new stories and assisting her in shopping around her own burgeoning body of work.
One fateful day, Lisa reveals that a short story she’s written has made it into Grand Street, one of the journals that wasn’t on their list of places to which to submit. A minor betrayal, this first major bump in the road signals the mounting rivalry to come.
Linda Lavin possesses exactly the right brusque qualities to tackle the role of esteemed, ruthless writer Ruth Steiner. As she reveals more of herself and her past – particularly the story of her romance with famed writer Delmore Schwartz – her guard begins to lower and the vulnerability of this literary animal begins to break loose.
The perfect foil to Lavin’s egotistical Ruth, Sarah Paulson’s Lisa progresses from naive grad student to confident writer, completing a thrilling reversal of fortunes that culminates with the play’s climactic ethical question regarding Lisa’s use of Ruth’s and Delmore Schwartz’s story as the basis of her upcoming first novel.
Margulies’s gift here is in planting the seeds of these two women’s reversals at exactly the right pace. From the start, we can suspect what’s to come, but the puzzle pieces only truly fit together as the playwright’s dueling protagonists reach the play’s climactic showdown. With actors like Lavin and Paulson, an audience is kept at the edge of its seat even if we suspect how things are beginning to work themselves out.
It’s a thrilling play to watch. While many two-character plays struggle to find dramatic impetus, Collected Stories pinpoints the highlights in the intertwining journeys of these two strong, intelligent women. At the heart of Margulies’s story is the central theme of witnessing each other’s lives. Not only do Ruth and Lisa grow together as teacher and student, they also play the crucial role of witness to each other’s successes and failures.
“What am I without my stories?” Ruth asks in the play’s final scene. “I’m as good as dead.” Even if Ruth considers Lisa one of her “daughters,” as she confesses at the play’s end, she’s also taught her well to cobble together a collection of stories of her own by whatever means possible – even borrowing what she feels is necessary. It’s what we all do to varying degrees, especially the artists among us. Watching their plight and working out our verdict on it all for ourselves most definitely makes for a thought-provoking night at the theatre.