It’s a promising premise: An established writer takes a talented youngster under her wing, only to find her protégée has taken more from her than she realized. But Collected Stories never lives up to its potential, even in this star-studded revival.
It’s easy to see why Donald Margulies’ two-hander is so often restaged: It provides actresses of a certain age with an articulate, interesting dramatic role, smack in the spotlight. In her cozy, book-lined apartment in 1990s Greenwich Village, aging writer Ruth Steiner (Linda Lavin) supplements her income and her social life by teaching creative writing to graduate students. When Lisa Morrison (Sarah Paulson) comes in for a session, she’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but she’s also an intelligent admirer of Ruth’s work, and some of her naivety is sheer nervousness in the presence of her idol. Further, to Ruth’s surprise, Lisa shows real talent, and she wangles a position as Ruth’s assistant. The two women gradually grow close, as Ruth’s health declines and Lisa’s career star rises, with Ruth even sharing the story of a momentous affair she had (but has never written about) with the poet Delmore Schwartz. But Lisa, with only her own young life to mine for material, needs to write a novel, and when she’s in search of a topic, it’s that very affair that catches her attention.
The mentor/protégée relationship is rich dramatic territory, and Margulies’ dialogue dutifully plods through many of the issues involved in the chiasmus of a waning and a waxing star. But this play loads the deck. Our sympathies are almost always with the battle-scarred Ruth – even when she’s kvetching about Lisa’s well-meant efforts to tidy up her stacks of papers – and that’s due as much to the way the role is written as to Lavin’s undeniable charm. Lisa, as Margulies depicts her, never rises above the trite trajectory of smart, self-effacing student who’s starting to make good – her appropriation of Ruth’s story is the only complicating factor. But the character of articulate, relatable Ruth is more carefully and capably explored than the perky student’s psyche. Given this imbalance, the play shortchanges its subject: Instead of being about a complicated, changing relationship, it becomes a story of betrayal, as Lisa’s “arguments” for appropriating Ruth’s story boil down to quoting Ruth back to herself, and the play stutters to an inconclusive ending.
Given this flaw, there’s not much that even the talents of director Lynn Meadow and her leading ladies can do to elevate this show above being simply a showcase for Lavin. The former Alice brings warmth, wryness and grit to Ruth, winning over the audience as surely as Lisa wins Ruth over. But while Paulson’s competently sunny yet shy as the aspiring writer tending to her mentor’s every need, even while she climbs the authorial ladder and descends the moral one, her character never gains more nuance (or even opacity); she simply becomes more of a plot device. Paulson’s portrayal is a trifle mannered, which is not out of keeping with her character, but it’s the role that fails, not her. And it’s just that failure in the writing that may be Ruth’s real revenge.