Yesterday afternoon I found that a good friend had written a short story inspired by something I had told her about myself. There are few parallels between the protagonist in the story and myself, but I was amazed that someone found something I did was interesting enough to spark her creativity. I read the story, and loved it. There are only a few threads that connects her protagonist and myself, but she has tapped into her imagination to create this poignant, wistful story. I don’t remember the last time I have felt so flattered or honored.
When something similar happens to Ruth Steiner in Donald Margulies’ two-hander Collected Stories, the NY based writer and professor doesn’t handle it quite nearly as well. The idea of artistic responsibility and ownership comes to the forefront of the debate between her and her former student/assistant turned fellow writer. Unfortunately, the potential remains woefully unfulfilled in a play which tries to be a literary All About Eve but winds up a rote, by the numbers dramatic exercise that is rarely compelling.
The play has its moments whenever Professor Steiner is holding court. She’s given the best zingers and one liners and is easily the audience favorite. After the play, I found myself having a spirited talk with friends and strangers alike outside the Samuel Friedman Theatre where Margulies’ 1997 play is having its Broadway premiere. The play follows six years in the lives of the teacher and student, as the latter becomes a noted literary figure and the surrogate mother-daughter relationship that forms between the two. I was amazed at the breadth of our conversation, as it was far a more interesting dissertation on the questions raised by the play than the play itself.
The relationship comes to a head when a wistful, and decidedly private anecdote Steiner tells Lisa about a relationship with poet/short story writer Delmore Schwartz becomes the source of inspiration for Lisa’s first novel. The mentor-pupil, mother-daughter dynamic is shattered, as the younger writer is accused of stealing Ruth’s story. Margulies makes an interesting case for both characters in the argument but might have made it stronger if the showdown wasn’t something that could be predicted in the middle of act one.
At the center of the play – its heart and soul – is a captivating turn from Linda Lavin, in the role originated by the indomitable Uta Hagen. Ms. Lavin’s Professor Steiner is the perfect embodiment of New York; she’s gruff, sardonic and likely to push you out of her way when walking down 7th Avenue. Ruth spends a great deal of the evening ruminating on her past and her literary position and is not one to suffer fools; there is very little that changes about her character, save for the subtle physical effects of an unnamed terminal illness. Lavin’s performance is fearless, funny and quite touching, particularly when she lets down her guard to Lisa and especially in the play’s final moments. It’s one of the acting highlights of an already impressive season of non musical performances and is poised for recognition from the various awards committees.
Sarah Paulson is the protege turned antagonist. Lisa’s the one with the arc, but in the way she’s written feels more like a stock character. The audience sees her transform from a gawky sycophant to sophisticate, but it’s like watching an automaton changing a dress. Paulson is barely able to turn Lisa into a credible human being. It was my first time seeing Paulson and I’d like to think that she, who is tauted as one of the more prominent New York theatre actors, has been better served by other plays and productions.
One of the main problems I had with the play is that the deck is stacked in Steiner’s favor. Had there been a more level playing field the characters’ conflict might have had more credence. When Lisa reads from her novel, it becomes evident to the audience that she is actually quite a horrible writer, while Ruth has already been established as a well-respected and well-regarded author. The play as is might be better served as a Lifetime or Hallmark movie than play.
The production is staged with great simplicity and clarity by Lynne Meadow, MTC’s artistic director supplemented by another winning set design from Santo Loquasto. But if you want to get into the debate over what accounts for artistic ownership you’d be better off skipping the play and just diving into a spirited talk. Then again, you’d be missing Linda Lavin giving one of the most memorable performances of the season.