The Orange Girls production of Donald Margulies' Collected Stories, which runs at CoCA through August 2, is a textbook example of an excellent performance of a mediocre play. Nancy Lewis and Meghan Maguire, under the direction of Edward Coffield, do everything humanly possible to bring this material to life but are thwarted at every turn by a script which seems more like a by-the-numbers school assignment than a sincere effort to create a work of dramatic art.
When you see as many plays as I do, you start thinking about all sorts of things beyond the specific work under consideration on a given evening. In the case of Collected Stories I started wondering how the quality of plays which are commissioned (as this one was by South Coast Repertory) stacks up compared to those which are not. I have a sneaking suspicion that writing to order, with guaranteed acceptance, seldom results in an author's finest work. Dramatists are as constrained by economics as the rest of us and the temptation to send something which is merely adequate (or worse, which has been in the trunk for a while) on such occasions must rear its ugly head at least now and then.
But that's a study yet to be done, and as generalizing from a sample of one is poor reasoning and ascribing intentions to other people based on circumstantial evidence is a dangerous game, I'll just note that Margulies has done better work elsewhere (his Dinner with Friends won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama) and leave it at that.
Collected Stories traces the changes in relationship and shifts in power between an older and younger woman over a seven-year period. The older woman is Ruth (Nancy Lewis), a distinguished writer and professor at Columbia University. The younger woman is Lisa (Meghan Maguire), who moves from being Ruth's student to her personal assistant to a celebrated new talent with two published books. There's more than a little Eve Harrington in Lisa, and I'm not the first to note echoes of the Stephen Spender/David Leavitt lawsuit in this story as well.
There should be a term which is the opposite of schadenfreude: not pleasure taken in the misfortunes of another, but pain suffered when they succeed. In the realm of education it's the opposite of naches fun kinder: rather than experiencing joy at the success of a pupil, Ruth is jealous when Lisa becomes famous. This is a real emotion and could have been the basis for an interesting play had Margulies made an effort to invest the characters with life or even to make their story realistic. Instead we have two cardboard figures enacting the clichés of a writer's life and the play's primary betrayal is underlined with thundering obviousness, as if Margulies believed his audience incapable of putting two and two together.
If I seem to be salting this review gratuitously with Yiddish words, just consider it a bad habit I picked up while watching the play. It's a lazy technique to make audiences pleased with themselves, as is the literary name-dropping and New York references Margulies frequently substitutes for dramatic writing. He also sets up an important plot point by having his characters discuss a contemporary event of ephemeral interest at best (Woody Allen's 1997 marriage), another technique which may buy some audience interest when a play is new but after a few years makes the same work seem old and tired.
But back to the Orange Girls production, which is worth seeing for the fine acting and excellent technical work even if the dramatic material itself is lacking. Nancy Lewis and Meghan Maguire are giving a sort of dual master class on how to portray the changing nature of a relationship: their body language as well as their intonation nicely mirrors the shifts in power between Ruth and Lisa. Mandy Bruggeman's costumes nicely underline these changes as well, and the set by Alex M. Gaines ably suggests both the home of an established New York writer and the 92nd St. Y where Lisa gives her first big reading. It's just too bad the company didn't have a better play to work with.
The Orange Girls production of Collected Stories continues at the Anheuser-Busch Black Box Theatre at CoCA through August 2, 2009. Ticket information is available from www.orangegirls.org or by calling 314-520-9557.