Call me old-fashioned, but it seems like good conversation has been lacking of late. When it seems impossible to make it through a dinner without a cell phone call or text interrupting and Facebook wall posts and Twitter shout-outs are the preferred method of communication, a lengthy intelligent conversation can feel few and far between. To those suffering from a lack of conversation: get thee to the Samuel L. Friedman theater, where the witty dialogue of Collected Stories will surely ease your pain. Donald Margulies’s literary drama, reminiscent of the classic film All About Eve is given a solid revival, with Linda Lavlin and Sarah Paulson delivering intelligent, in-depth performances.
Margulies’s plot centers around Ruth (Lavlin, wonderful), a writer and professor, and her student and protégé Lisa (Paulson, also excellent). First approaching Ruth as a worshipful student, Lisa is soon hired as a personal assistant and eventually progresses to become a friend and confidant. The show spans the course of six years, as Lisa experiences eventual success as a writer and the inevitable conflict between the two women develops.
The script is a bit predictable, and that could be a detriment, but Lavlin and Paulson deliver such enriched, authentic performances that this flaw is hardly noticeable. Lavin’s Ruth is cranky and cantankerous but still likeable and admirable. In a subtly nuanced performance, she depicts the satisfaction of success and security as well as the fear that comes with aging and looking back on one’s career. Lavin, who has played this role in two other productions, gives a wonderfully subtle, thoroughly developed performance. A single word or a silent raising of an eyebrow by this actress says more than several lines of dialogue spoken by another could. Paulson’s Lisa is entertaining as an awkward admirer and quite endearing as she endures Ruth’s harsh criticisms and, at first, cold and unfriendly manner. As Lisa matures into a successful writer and Ruth’s pride is mingled with envy, the chemistry between the two escalates quietly into the inevitable second-act clash when Ruth expresses her anger over a perceived betrayal by Lisa.
Swiftly written and peppered with inside jokes about the literary community in New York (comments about The New Yorker and the 92nd Street Y both elicited loud laughter from the audience), Collected Stories offers a thoughtful look at success and competition, especially between two women. Passer-bys might label it as a catfight or other snide terms used to describe conflict between women, but these women are too intelligent and interesting to be dismissed so easily.