You can tell where Donald Margulies' "Collected Stories" is going as soon as its two characters meet -- which is about a minute in.
It doesn't matter that the relationship between Ruth Steiner and Lisa Morrison follows a course so calculated, it could have been set by NASA. That's because they're played by the expert Linda Lavin and Sarah Paulson, respectively, who find a world of ambiguities in a fairly standard story.
Margulies' 1997 play, which had its Broadway premiere last night, follows the women over six years. Lisa starts off as a promising student in a creative-writing class taught by Ruth, a literary author with an enviable reputation and a no-nonsense manner.
Lisa worships Ruth -- "Your voice has been inside my head for so long," she tells her -- and even becomes her personal assistant. As time passes, the older woman remains the younger one's mentor, but the employer/employee, teacher/student bond blossoms into genuine friendship. Ruth still lords it over Lisa -- who greedily absorbs advice, criticism and stories from the good ol' times -- but she also reveals a neediness of her own.
After Lisa's career takes off, she gets further, unwitting help from Ruth. Turns out Lisa -- who can't find inspiration in her own boring life -- was taking notes when Ruth told her about a decades-old affair with poet Delmore Schwartz in Greenwich Village.
Outside of his hijacking of Schwartz (who's safely dead), Margulies doesn't add much bite or insight to this familiar tale of artistic vampirism. Fortunately, the stars of Lynne Meadow's production do it for him.
That Lavin has unparalleled comic timing isn't new. Here, she deftly drawls some words into grunts of disapproval, and could teach a seminar on eye-rolling. But she also unearths layers of conflicting emotions as Ruth's relationship with Lisa grows complicated. Lavin also somehow manages to look 10 years older at the play's end, literally showing us her character's degrading health and the way she's physically affected by what she considers a betrayal.
Paulson is a worthy match, her posture straightening as Lisa gains confidence, her glare acquiring a steely glint. Underneath her eager-beaver exterior, Lisa may have been a manipulator all along. But she could also be genuinely confused by Ruth's mixed messages and her subsequent bitter disappointment.
When a confrontation finally occurs, as we knew it would, it's a joy to watch these two women face off -- especially since nobody wins.
As good actors age — perhaps a more felicitous word would be mature — they learn how to do more with less.
Consider the left eyebrow of Linda Lavin, the veteran star of the new revival of Donald Margulies’s “Collected Stories.” At one point in this durable drama about the manners and morals of writers, Ms. Lavin raises said eyebrow by perhaps half an inch. She says nary a word, and doesn’t move any other muscle, but still communicates with this minimal gesture more than a lesser actor might squeeze from a long monologue.
She gets a solid laugh too.
The arcing eyebrow is a frequent gesture for Ruth Steiner, the smart, skeptical central figure in Mr. Margulies’s 1996 play, which has been produced twice off Broadway but now moves with relative ease to Broadway and the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, where it opened Wednesday night in a production directed by Lynne Meadow for Manhattan Theater Club.
Ruth burst onto the literary scene with a book of short stories that earned her instant fame in her early 20s. The fame faded, and Ruth has since become a respected but little-celebrated member of the establishment, teaching writing to the young and the ambitious in New York City.
Moderate success has earned her a cozy, book-lined perch in the West Village. But her dedication to the art of fiction, and the nurturing of other writers, has been the focus of her life. She never married and never had children. The perch is also a bit of a fortress.
Ms. Lavin evinces with every sardonic inflection and studied pause the cool distance with which Ruth observes the world, beginning with her students and their fledgling attempts at displaying their literary plumage. She nearly breaks out in hives at the ebullient admiration of Lisa Morrison (Sarah Paulson), the student she’s allowed to breach the fortress for a consultation about the story she’s written for Ruth’s class.
Lisa’s flaxen hair and wholesome eagerness do not quite match the knotty intensity of her story about a girl suffering from an eating disorder. “Almost without exception my students tend to look like their stories,” Ruth says dryly, clearly implying that she expected Lisa to resemble nightshade rather than a sunflower.
“So am I not a serious-looking person?” Lisa asks falteringly.
“No, you’re not,” comes the blunt reply.
But Lisa’s talent intrigues Ruth, and as their relationship evolves — Lisa jumps at the chance to become her assistant — Ruth also comes to see in her protégée a version of the unworldly aspirant to the citadel of art that she once was herself, a nobody from Detroit who found herself sitting across from the poet Delmore Schwartz in a West Village tavern. Ruth’s wary demeanor begins to thaw when she reveals to Lisa the story of her affair with the poet, who was by then “descending rapidly,” as Ruth puts it.
As Ruth reflects on the past, Ms. Lavin herself seems to shed years, as the regenerating warmth of nostalgia flows like new blood in Ruth’s veins. The voice, normally tinged with complaint or suspicion, softens and slows into an almost hypnotic purr; the eyes gleam with youthful excitement and vivid pain as she recalls the highs and lows.
“I’m not particularly proud of all that happened and yet ... it was my shining moment,” Ruth says, and Ms. Lavin invests the words with a piercing truth. This moment of intimacy between mentor and protégée will prove to be a fateful passage in their relationship.
Mr. Margulies, the Pulitzer Prize winner whose “Time Stands Still” preceded “Collected Stories” at the same theater, making this spring season a miniature festival of his work, has found fertile material in the struggles of the creative classes to reconcile the demands of ambition with the exigencies of life. His breakthrough play, “Sight Unseen,” considered the exacting cost of success for a painter, and “Time Stands Still” explored the widening emotional gulf between a photographer and a journalist with diverging views about their vocations.
“Collected Stories” is a more modest, tightly focused play than either of those works, but it also digs into its engaging tale of aesthetics and ethics with intelligence and sharp, literate humor. (Among the best jokes is a gag about The New Yorker magazine.) When Lisa’s first book of stories is received with the same éclat Ruth’s once occasioned, the balance of power in their relationship slowly begins to shift, and by the end of the play the grateful ingénue has become a far more complicated figure, as Ruth’s interaction with Lisa exposes a new emotional susceptibility.
Ms. Paulson gives an effective performance as the naïve young woman who proves to be surprisingly adept at negotiating the rocky terrain of the New York publishing world. She could profitably blend in a few more suggestions of the canny operator beneath the surface ingenuousness, however, particularly in the second act. Ms. Paulson’s teary earnestness in the climactic scene rings true, and yet it’s not the whole story.
Although the roles are roughly equal, the balance of sympathy will always favor Ruth, who dominates the play with her bone-dry humor and aggrieved dignity. Ms. Lavin, who has played the role twice onstage and has also filmed it for PBS, knows this woman down to her fingertips. She embodies this classic New York type just as she nailed a rather more outlandish type in her peerlessly funny performance in Charles Busch’s heavenly “Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.”
The great Uta Hagen, who played Ruth in the 1998 Off Broadway production, was perhaps more ferocious and emotionally raw. Ms. Lavin’s performance is smaller scaled but no less affecting in its gradual revelation of the vulnerable woman beneath the polished professional.
In the play’s scorching final scene Ruth unleashes a torrent of fury at Lisa for what she perceives as a betrayal. Underneath her burning righteousness Ms. Lavin makes clear how great is the emotional cost Ruth will pay for it. By the end of the scene she is shaken and spent, a collapsed shell of the crisp, commanding figure we met when the play began. The moral high ground can be lonely terrain.