The dialogue in a Donald Margulies play often seems as much in need of choreography as direction, the characters verbally dancing with one another as they mix stated truths with hidden agendas. “Collected Stories,” Margulies’ new play, features a pas de deux as intricate as any ballet, with two women — an aging professor and her overeager grad student — gradually forming a bond that becomes as believable as it at first seems unlikely. That their dance fizzles out in a clunky climactic scene of missteps only partially fumbles the intriguing build-up.
Beginning as a female version of “Old Wicked Songs,” “Collected Stories” traces the budding friendship between Ruth (Maria Tucci), a very respected, somewhat famous short story writer and Columbia U. prof, and Lisa (Debra Messing), a young, adoring graduate student whose ditsy manner and Valley Girl speech can’t hide a latent writing talent. The play opens in September of 1990, when the two women meet face-to-face for the first time during a tutorial in Ruth’s book-lined Greenwich Village apartment (perfectly rendered by Thomas Lynch). Lisa is as nervous, self-conscious and needy as Ruth is perfunctory and irritable, but over the course of more meetings (and a couple of years) the two move beyond mentor/protege to something approaching mother/daughter.
If the setup sounds like an overused formula for a weepy melodrama, Margulies has other things in mind (even as he toys with the genre by employing the hoariest of devices: a life-threatening disease). Anything but maudlin, the relationship between the two characters is a rather prickly affair, with the professor growing more than a little envious of her student’s rising literary star. (Lisa is hailed by the New York Times as the voice of her generation following the publication of her first short story collection.)
But just as the play could go in any number of directions — professional rivalry threatens friendship, impending death prompts passing of the torch — Margulies throws a curve in the second act by recreating a recent real-life literary scandal. Just as the poet Stephen Spender accused novelist David Leavitt of stealing Spender’s life story as the basis for Leavitt’s novel “While England Sleeps,” so too does Ruth accuse Lisa. Having recounted a painful and poignant episode from her past, Ruth is angered and hurt when Lisa fictionalizes the story for her novel.
Much of the second act of “Collected Stories” is a heated argument between the two women as they debate the privileges of artistic freedom, the ethics of the writer and the responsibilities of friendship. It’s a rousing debate, but a debate all the same, and characters that had flesh and blood in the first act become little more than mouthpieces for their respective arguments in the second. “Collected Stories” ends abruptly, as if the playwright had exhausted the debate but forgot to finish the play.
Peterson’s staging underplays the speechifying, lending fluidity and the semblance of action to what essentially is an ongoing dialogue. The performances are splendid, with the actresses making their characters seem at once sincere yet too complicated for absolute honesty. Margulies would have better served his play had he stayed as enraptured of these characters as he is of their opinions.