The desperate need to connect — with art, with artists — is beautifully expressed in PBS’ presentation of “Collected Stories.” Laced with sharp dialogue and finely honed performances by Linda Lavin and Samantha Mathis, Donald Margulies’ play resonates with wisdom, intelligence and heartbreak as it asks, “Whose life is it anyway?” Like sparring strangers, a reclusive professor and her anxious protege dance around plenty of debatable issues, the most universal of which is surely the need to be needed.
Margulies, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for his “Dinner With Friends,” is a master of the back-and-forth, able to create rapid-fire passages of dialogue that would seem downright pretentious coming from another’s pen. In a play that mentions Bellow, Updike and Cheever but also manages to spend a little time on Woody Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, it’s no surprise that the business at hand revolves primarily around the standards we set for the creative community.
“Stories,” a Pulitzer contender in 1997, is defined by its power struggle. Lavin is Ruth Steiner, a shut-in professor who worships her books, her English breakfast tea and her misery. As she often does, Ruth has agreed to tutor Lisa Morrison (Mathis), a wide-eyed grad student in love with knowing such a famous academician and willing to take on her suggestions like a child in need of constant hugs.
Having agreed to give all of herself to Ruth as a scholar, Lisa begins working for her as well, picking up garbage, organizing mail and house-sitting when the boss is showing up at panel discussions on C-SPAN.
As time passes — Margulies opens the work in 1990 and sets each scene about two years apart — the tides begin to turn, and both women, always uncomfortable with who they once were, change roles and seemingly feel more at home as the scorned woman or the conniving Gen Xer.
It’s a subtle transformation on one hand — Ruth’s gradual need for approval comes on slowly — but there are broad strokes as well. At first acting the part of a dippy, pretty face, as if literature could hardly come from her, Lisa eventually becomes the clever, powerful one, rising in the literary ranks, scoring a good New York Times review for her debut anthology, “Eating Between Meals,” and transforming into the worldly, wealthy and wry populist that Ruth never wanted to become until she saw what she was missing.
The final act makes Margulies’ tale something more than just another relationship story. As Lisa becomes a somebody, she eventually breaks out with a story culled from all of Ruth’s experiences: an affair with poet Delmore Schwartz, a beatnik existence in 1957, a Jewish background. Even minute details like the smell of garlic as it permeated a small apartment — all of Ruth’s days and nights end up on the pages of Morrison’s first novel, and it’s what turns their mother-daughter union into a sham. Claiming to have taken the tales as a respectful nod to Ms. Steiner, Lisa can’t understand the appropriation as it ruins a proud woman and reduces her to a shell of privacy. It’s a clever exploration of the ownership of encounters.
Margulies has always liked the dynamic of duets. Obie-winning “Sight Unseen” explored the relationship between artisans — also one on the rise and one in decline — and even “Dinner” was about the power of two as explored by four in conflict.
“Stories” is much of the same, having been adapted for the screen by Margulies and helmed with complete confidence by Gil Cates, who brought the play to the Geffen Playhouse with this cast after seeing it run Off Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Club in ’97, starring Maria Tucci and Debra Messing (it actually preemed at Orange County’s South Coast Rep).
Spending most of the time in Ruth’s apartment, Cates, lenser John Simmons and production designer Roy Christopher still manage to create tension, elation and comfort as they create moods and methods via close-ups and silence. Project, available in HDTV, was filmed in Los Angeles last fall and is skedded for an encore presentation Sunday.