Every once in a while, a play comes along that not only makes audiences sit up and listen but also moves them. Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories” is such a work. Two-and-a-half years ago, when “Stories” had its world premiere at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, it garnered deserved praise. Now the play, a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 1997, is making its Los Angeles debut at the Geffen Playhouse, and the experience proves just as rewarding, albeit in different ways.
Margulies’ play, set almost entirely in a Greenwich Village apartment, places two women on the stage, Ruth Steiner (Linda Lavin), a gifted, demanding writer perhaps a bit past her prime, and Lisa Morrison (Samantha Mathis), a nascent talent who has come to Ruth to master her craft. But over the course of six years, from 1990 to 1996, something inevitably happens between mentor and protege, something: Their relationship changes.
“Stories” explores the strange, tense, complicated, shifting love-hate match between two skilled people, one breathlessly lusting for success and acclaim, and the other hoping for continued dominance. Margulies handles this relationship subtly, but he tips his hand when, near the end of the play, Ruth declares, “I think there’s something terribly Freudian going on here.” Indeed.
Watching this atavistic ritual unfold is gripping, even though we’ve seen such things before. (The film “All About Eve” instantly comes to mind.) The magic arrives by way of Margulies’ intelligent, nuanced, bright, funny dialogue. Here is a playwright not afraid to make frequent reference to Delmore Schwartz or take swipes at the New Yorker or even use Woody Allen’s controversial romancing of Soon-Yi Previn as grist for his mill.
It would be tempting to point to the upstart as the villain and see the vet as the victim, as in “Eve.” But Margulies avoids easy choices. If Lisa betrays Ruth’s trust — and that remains an open question — Ruth is not entirely blameless. It is, after all, she who says, “We’re all rummagers … Why stop at our own journals?”
But good as Margulies’ play is, it takes two gifted actresses to bring it off. Director Gilbert Cates has managed well with Lavin and Mathis — though those lucky enough to have seen the SCR premiere should be allowed to pine in good conscience for Kandis Chappell and Suzanne Cryer.
Lavin is a talented, protean actress with three Tony noms to her credit, and she gives her all in this production. Theatergoers enamored with technique above all else will be especially gratified with her performance, for this is acting in the grand style. When Lavin reveals Ruth’s secret, sad love affair, she holds the audience rapt. She is, quite simply, spellbinding.
There is, however, room to quibble. Lavin plays Ruth as a crone, and the Mid-Atlantic accent she inflicts on auds can get annoying after a while. Moreover, she peppers her speech with sharply inflected “Hmmms,” “Huhs” and “Whats.” At one point in the play, Ruth cracks, “If Thelma Ritter were alive today, she would play me in the movies.” Lavin has taken that remark too much to heart.
Mathis doesn’t overdo the eager-beaver routine (something that marred Cryer’s perf), but she sometimes spews out lines so rapidly, they defy credulity. Her character’s maturation over the play’s six-year time span, though, is accomplished beautifully. Mathis is the daughter of the late Bibi Besch, and if not yet as accomplished an actress as the gifted Besch was, Mathis shows promise.
Though Cates is the Geffen’s producing (read: artistic) director, “Stories” marks the first play he’s helmed for this stage. Deft without being fancy, his smooth efforts only heighten the impact of Margulies’ work.
John Arnone’s set is far plusher than what SCR envisioned as Ruth’s living space, but it works just as well. Bright and airy, it seems very much a place in which a writer could accomplish great things.