by Donald Margulies
Directed by Lynne Meadow
Starring Linda Lavin and Sarah Paulson
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
A Production of the Manhattan Theatre Club
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

Among the most delicate and complicated re­la­tion­ships in the world of the arts is that between men­tor and protégé. Especially when at the start the mentor is a curmudgeon and the protégé is adoring. The protégé absorbs like a sponge every­thing the mentor has to say—even the mentor’s unwisest attitudes and opinions—and inevitably, it is the filter­ing of those flaws that causes the breach. As the protégé breaks away, s/he almost always does so by returning a dose of the mentor’s own medi­cine. And, in a manner that is almost al­ways hurt­ful…but more than that, at first, bewil­dering…the mentor is not only unappre­cia­tive…but without understanding.

                        Countless acquaintances and colleagues of mine have gone through this rite of passage with their mentors, I’ve been through it my­self, and if you’re lucky enough (as I was) to come from a fairly well-adjusted homelife, your mentor in­evitably pro­vides—as a friend of mine once put it—the dysfunc­tional family you never had. (While boning up on character lore for a novel I wrote some years ago, based on the teevee series Alien Nation, I rescreened an episode called “Partners”. The human cop, Sikes [Gary Graham] has just dis­covered that his mentor is terribly flawed. Trying to make light of it, he says to George, the alien cop who is his partner [Eric Pier­point], “It’s not like he was my father or any­thing.” And George’s sober, gentle response is: “Oh, no, Matthew—he was much more than a fa­ther to you.” It’s a scene that’s etched in my brain and the exchange still haunts me. I think it always will.)

                        I have remained just as haunted by Donald Margulies’ 1997 play “Col­lected Stories” which is still, to my memory, the first and only dramatization of this relationship that is so pointed and specific. It follows in detail the “arc of inevita­bility” described in the opening para­graphs…but it never settles into seeming schematic, because Mr. Mar­gulies is so deft at keeping the relationship shaded in hues of gray. Right and wrong don’t exist here, just a ritual passing of the torch, with all the jealousies and rebellions—conscious and oth­erwise—that en­tails.

                        The characters are: short story writer Ruth Steiner (Linda Lavin), crusty, middle aged, sin­gle, a literary icon but not really a household name, never having  braved a full novel…and Lisa Morri­son (Sarah Paulson) her graduate stu­dent, who soon becomes her assistant, and, in short (and un­spoken) order, a kind of surrogate daughter. She will even­tually brave the novel. And therein will lie the seeds of a very arguable be­trayal.

                        And it is very well argued too. Mr. Mar­gulies puts equal weight on a students’ respon­sibility to be sensitive…and the mentor’s re­sponsibility to understand how much power her words carry. At the play’s shattering climax (well, perhaps not shattering—but traumatic enough) you are at a loss for who to root for. Sadder still—you’ve come to love them both: because you can see each in the other’s eyes…you understand intimately what brings them together…and what rips them apart. (I hasten to add, sobering as this play is, it is far from humorless. A sense of irony is what draws these two together—and rips them apart—too.)

                        Under the direction of Lynne Meadow, the cast of this revival is quite fine: Ms. Paulson exhibits a wide range of emotions and a very convincing gradual growth from fawning na­ēveté to assured matu­rity as the newcomer to the craft. And as the teacher, Ms. Lavin manages to exploit her significant arsenal of nuance and variation without the tics of grandeur and scene stealing that can come to her so easily. (Exactly the kind of thing that tainted the performance of Uta Hagen in a 1998—that’s not a typo, it was indeed little more than a year after the original—revival.) Ms. Lavin is giving an appropriately virtuosic performance, to be sure, but one that’s in careful check, and finely balanced with that of her co-star.

                        All this said, “Collected Stories” is by no means a great play—merely a very good one. But it does something great. It nails a vital dynamic in the creative process. And it as­sures all of us who have been through it, are going through it, or have yet to go through it that it’s a time-honored path to tread…

                        …and that we are not alone…

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