Good things come to those who wait. For those theatergoers who are patient enough to sit through the leisurely and bookish two act, two character “Collected Stories” by Donald Margulies which is now being presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre you will be eventually rewarded.
But it takes time as Mr. Margulies slowly and deliberately sets the groundwork for the final confrontation between mentor Ruth Steiner (Linda Lavin) and pupil, assistant, and devoted fan Lisa Morrison (Sarah Paulson) who becomes a “cause celebre” for Ruth after publishing a very private story which she has heard, rehashed and reshaped (as told to her by Ruth in an uncharacteristic revealing moment) that becomes a best seller.
A final confrontation that is six long years and five scenes in the making. Thankfully Mr. Margulies has some great dialogue and knows just when and how to end his scenes. Spanning in time from 1990 when Ruth first notices the writing ability of Lisa and offers to tutor her to the finale in 1996 in the same Greenwich Village apartment where she is now ailing and venting her anger and where all of the interesting and intelligent albeit undramatic set up has taken place we finally get to see some sparks fly.
With a look, a shrug, a sigh, a cough Linda Lavin conveys all the deep set layers of a successful writer who is only jealous of her protégé because she has time on her side. As the young, inquisitive, very talkative, determined admirer Ms. Paulson lets us know early on exactly what she is up to.
Remember aspiring actress Eve Harrington inching her way into the life of Margo Channing; substitute writer for actress and you have “Collected Stories” but without the theatrical fireworks. Just those last minute sparks. Unfortunately the meat of the play – where we would actually see what Lisa is up to – that she is trying to hide the fact that she is stealing an intimate life experience from Ruth (her love affair with the poet Delmore Schwartz) without ever looking her in the eye would have been terrific. But we are only told about this happening. I would have liked to have seen it happening. Show, don’t tell they say. I say, don’t tell, write the scene or scenes.
One would have thought that MTC’s space at City Center would have been better suited to house this intimate story, that borders on being bland in its production but for the incredible job done by Linda Lavin and Ms. Paulson as the two intelligent women who are at the same time attracted and at odds with each other and the astute direction of Lynne Meadow. But that would have prevented Linda Lavin from receiving a Tony Nomination as Best Actress in a Play. Which she certainly deserves.
www.mtc-nyc.org Photo: Joan Marcus