Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 28, 2010
Collected Stories by Donald Margulies. Directed by Lynne Meadow. Scenic design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Original music & sound design by Obadiah Eaves. Wig design by Paul Huntley. Cast: Linda Lavin, Sarah Paulson.
If that’s a modest goal for its playwright, Donald Margulies, and this production’s director, Lynne Meadow, it’s hardly a bothersome one. Not every revival can be as titanic as Fences (which just opened two nights ago), and not every Margulies outing can be as bracing and pointed as Time Stands Still (his most recent new play, and the previous tenant at the Friedman). Sometimes “good enough” is, well, good enough, and if Linda Lavin is on hand, it’s going to seem like considerably more than that anyway.
Appearing on a New York stage for the first time since her hilarious turn in Paul Rudnick’s The New Century two years ago, and on Broadway for the first time since Hollywood Arms in 2002, Lavin brings an enveloping amount of hardscrabble elegance to her character, Ruth Steiner. Ruth has lived in the same apartment for over 30 years, and demands order, reliability, and brevity from herself, those around her, and her work, qualities that match snugly with Lavin’s no-nonsense, Everywoman bravura. She looks completely at home when sporting a pair of owlish spectacles, and sounds just right delivering the reproving speeches and evaluations (encouraging and damning) that define Ruth’s current career as a teacher.
Of writing, by the way — her one and lasting true love. An acclaimed author, she’s never written a novel, but has made her name entirely through anthologies of short stories that glorify and identify the working Americans history so often renders silent. But it’s been enough for her to make a name and a star for herself, and to paint her as the dream role model for up-and-comers, including and especially one of her students, Lisa Morrison (Sarah Paulson), who comes to Ruth’s Greenwich Village apartment to get advice on her own writings, and ends up taking a whole lot more.
From there, any plot synopsis must dissolve into tidal waves of keywords: friends, biography, borrow, steal, enemies, recrimination, and so on. The women’s relationship, which starts out cold and fractious, develops over the course of six years (from 1990 to 1996) in all the expected ways, with the reversals, retreads, and reconsiderations that constitute the economic, well-made play of the 1990s. The protégée who becomes the instructor, the mentor whose trust is violated by the one she initially trusted but came to love as the daughter she didn’t have — these are archetypes, but not ineffective ones, and thus neither force you to turn your head away or draw it forward in penetrating engagement.
When Ruth chides Lisa in their first meeting, over her careless use of the word “Etruscan,” she advises, “We must never be arbitrary. Everything has to have a reason.” Margulies has followed that advice, for his writing here is structured and tidy — it’s just that the reasons he gives are themselves arbitrary, which can make Collected Stories at once as attractive and as artificial as the images Ruth warns against deploying indiscriminately.
What’s needed, in the writing and the production, is an anchor that will grant real-world lucidity to the symbolic figures who act out age-old battles onstage. Meadows’s production is handsome, contemplative and well-considered, with a warmly hermetic set by Santo Loquasto that resonates the suffusive personality of a woman who’s unfortunately created exactly the life she always wanted. But only Lavin finds and applies a dose of recognizable authenticity that makes the play seem like something we haven’t seen and heard countless times before.
She shows you, over the show’s six-year span, how the burden of living and of trying to help along Lisa’s career wears upon Ruth’s body and spirit, accelerating the passage of time. Firm and vital at the beginning but almost too weak to move by the final scenes, Lavin seems to wither away before your eyes. The actress becoming less and less herself is the right performance metaphor for Ruth, who loses her own identity to both Lisa and the world at large when she dares share too much of it. But Lavin makes Ruth’s every new frailty, of limb and voice alike (Ruth’s thick-tongued vocal tics in the final scene are heart-rending coming from a woman who was once so clear-spoken), so specific that you never believe any playwright could have scripted so full a decline.
Ideally, Paulson would display in Lisa the opposing growth, absorbing the strength and stature she saps from Ruth. That doesn’t happen to the degree it should — Paulson still looks, very late in the show, as if she doesn’t entirely believe that her soft-spoken grad student could morph into literary wunderkind so rapidly. On some level, she’s right to question it — it’s the play’s least convincing plot element. But the actor should leave no doubt of it in our minds, and Paulson doesn’t effect a substantial journey between Lisa the insecure artist and Lisa the ruthless artistic businesswoman later. That transformation is key.
Or, at least, as key as anything here is. Though it deals with heavy subjects, the play never owns much weight — it’s as if it recognizes itself as one of those 20-page bedtime stories more designed for bonding time than lasting impact. That would explain how Collected Stories occasioned two productions within the first year of its New York life — one at MTC in 1997 with Maria Tucci and another Off-Broadway a year later with Uta Hagen — and continues to compel, inspire, and disappoint, in any and every incarnation. It longs for something — anything — to make it more than the sum of its parts, and promises, like those bedtime tales, that it will utterly transport with just one more reading.