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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Though the Spender-Leavitt scandal was soon submerged by the never ending stream of new gossipy tidbits, Collected Stories had enough strings to its bow to be popular on the revival circuit. For one thing, with just two characters and a single set, it's economical to produce; perhaps even more importantly, the role of Ruth Steiner offers a big bone to chew on for an older actress, and that of the Eve-like Lisa is a nice chance to shine for a younger actress.
The late, great Uta Hagen, who I first saw doing this in the showcase theater attached to the HB Studio acting school, was a magnificent Ruth Steiner. Maria Tucci was also quite good. The third production I saw was during Shakespeare & Company's first season in its handsome new Founders' Theater and company regular Annette Miller managed to make the play worth seeing yet again and one of the funniest line, " Life's too short for the New Yorker," still tickled the funny bone.
But even during its initial bloom, Collected Stories was Off-Broadway, so the production now at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre and starring Linda Lavin, is its Broadway premiere. Lavin, an expert at portraying Jewish women with sardonic wit and enviably perfect timing, is clearly the reason for this belated Broadway debut. But even with Lavin as a potentially worthy successor to her predecessors, I'll admit to an "oh, not again" feeling at the prospect of of yet another encounter with Ruth Steiner and the protege who both loves and betrays her. Still, being fond of the play I was prepared to like it again.
Lavin does indeed bring out all the emotional shades of this complicated woman — the wry humor, the strong opinions, as well the neediness of a woman who's lived a solitary life except for her teaching. Though Lavin dominates the play, Sarah Paulson holds her own as the student who becomes as important to her teacher as the teacher is to her.
The problem with this production is that it comes so soon after Margulies's excellent new play, Time Stands Still (review), opened in this same venue earlier this season. It's the timeliness and freshness of that play that exposes and actually emphasize the aging infrastructure of Collected Stories. That's not to say that it's a bad play. It was, after all, a Pulitzer runner up. Though somewhat predictable and excessively talky, it is also filled to the brim with ideas and Margulies' always strong dialogue to insure an articulate theater experience.
At the crux of the play's six scenes--played out over as many years-- is the relationship between a somewhat curmudgeonly academic who's also a renowned short story writer, and Lisa Morrison, an ambitious as yet unpublished writer. Not surprisingly, the disciple not only surpasses the mentor's success but does so spectacularly. Because her rise from uncertain student to cool literary star stems from a novel based on a romantic interlude in the teacher's life, we quickly see that Collected Stories is also a microscope for examining honor and betrayal, the creative process, as well as aging and waning power (As the play progresses Ruth is clearly seriously ill, though no specific illness is mentioned).
MTC's 1997 Off-Broadway production (the one starring Maria Tucci) not only prompted comparisons to All About Eve but to another play that opened around the same time: Wendy Wassertein's American Daughter, in which a character named Quincy Quince was the now generation scavenger of Wasserstein's own generation's feminist ideals. (review).
The playwright has trimmed and tightened the script so that it now runs about 15 minutes shorter than originally. However, there are no major changes in the dialogue (at least none that are particularly noticeable). Consequently, director Lynn Meadow was wise not to update the staging. There's no mention of cell phones — in fact Ruth still stubbornly refuses to answer the telephone she does have. The announcements of the time for each scene are projected to the accompaniment of the click-click-click of an old-fashioned typewriter. The discussion about Woody Allen and his relationship with his adopted daughter (who's now been his wife for for a dozen years) has become as dated as the Spender-Leavitt legal battle, but it would have required a major rewrite to have something else pave the way for Lisa to make the connection between that romance and her teacher's affair with the poet Delmore Schwartz.
Like everything at MTC's beautiful Broadway venue, this Collected Stories is handsomely staged. Santo Loquasto has recreated an old-fashioned Village apartment, with its chief decorative elements e the books that are Ruth Steiner's life. Though the book shelves are a bit too neat and untouched looking, the windows are authentically opaque with city grime. Jane Greenwood's costumes, Natasha Katz's lighting and Obadiah Eaves soundscape are all impeccable.
Lavin and Paulson interact well. The scene in which Lisa's announcement that she's found a publisher for her short story on her own that reveals the first signs of cracks in the women's relationship is still poignant. The final confrontation remains fierce and sad.
If there's ever a full fledged Margulies Festival, Collected Stories, like Sight Unseen, Dinner With Friends and Brooklyn Boy should certainly be part of it. But I can't help wishing that instead of mounting it in a major Broadway theater in the same season as the playwright's newer and more powerful Time Stands Still, that this time slot would have been given to an up and coming playwright, a writer who might be encouraged to develop a body of durable works as Donald Margulies has.
April 29, 2010 Postscript: I've received several e-mails this morning as to whether this isn't actually Linda Lavin's second outing as Ruth Steiner, the original being on the small screen The answer is yes. She did it for PBS TV with Samantha Mathiss as Lisa. Donald Margulies did the screenplay I never saw that version but you can see a picture of Lavin in the film as well as read a lot of other interesting details here.