Linda Lavin and Sarah Paulson in Collected Stories.. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: Lavin gives a Tony Award worthy performance in this great story of interesting characters, relationships, and moral dilemma.
Linda Lavin may very well find herself with another Tony for her performance as Ruth Steiner in Donald Margulies' Collected Stories. Paired with Sarah Paulson as Lisa Morrison, Ruth's young idolizing protege, the two ignite the stage with their versatile performances. The play, which saw successful off-Broadway productions in the late '90s (one starring Debra Messing before she found TV fame with Will & Grace and another starring acting great Uta Hagen), is now at home on Broadway.
The story takes place over the course of a six year relationship between a highly accomplished fiction writer and professor, Ruth, and an impressionable young student, Lisa. Lisa begins as an insecure girl of twenty-six who does little more than talk and worry about herself and gush over Ruth. Ruth, though frustrated, finds a little entertainment and a whole lot of promise in the young student. Ruth helps Lisa find her voice and in the process not only helps her become a stronger writer but a stronger woman too. Lisa learns that Ruth is more than a sardonic curmudgeon, and certainly more than an idol to be placed on a pedestal.
The two grow from teacher/student to confidants. Ruth shares lessons in writing, such as "Don't tell me about it, write it," when Lisa begins to relay an idea for a story, warning her, "Telling takes away the need to write it." Ruth also finds a friend in Lisa and shares stories of being a young writer in NYC and an affair with famed poet Delmore Schwartz. Lisa listens and absorbs everything this mother figure has to say - almost to a fault. The women's relationship falls apart when Lisa takes Ruth's advice too far. Margulies explores the question: once one shares a story with another, whose story is it to tell?
Margulies' gift for dialogue and creating multifaceted characters is made even more rich by the outstanding performances of Lavin and Paulson. Lavin, (some may remember her affectionately as Alice from the TV show of the same name), in particular, gives an iconic performance with her ability to coin a phrase. Turning even the most simple response, verbal or nonverbal, into a punch line. She does this with precision and perceptiveness (uh-oh, as Ruth says, "Our little critic seems to have been bit by the alliteration bug!") Lavin's performance oozes with detail, melding wit and vulnerability into one tough package making lines like "life's too short for The New Yorker," hit home in more ways than one.
Paulson perfectly embodies Ruth's observation of Lisa, "Either you're being disingenuous or very naive." She does a wonderful job of showing the growth that a woman takes from mid-twenties to early thirties.
Director Lynne Meadow, together with her creative team, make the audience feel like a fly on the wall observing the birth and death of a relationship. In a book infested, tissue box littered, cozy apartment with a sticky window and a broken buzzer, we are left contemplating, who are we without our stories?
(Collected Stories plays at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th St., between Broadway and 8th Ave., through June 13th. Performances are Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 2pm and 8pm, Thursdays at 8pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. It runs 2 hours with one 15 minute intermission. Tickets are $57-$97 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200. Visit manhattantheatreclub.com for more info.)