Anyone who takes acting seriously would walk a Broadway mile to see Linda Lavin play a distinguished but earthy author who is betrayed by the adoring protege who worms into her reclusive life. Pulitzer Prize-winning scribe Donald Margulies deftly if oh-so-laboriously lays out the groundwork for the final confrontation that allows Lavin to rip her guts out. Manhattan Theater Club a.d. Lynne Meadow, who previously directed Lavin in “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” and helms here, respects her star’s firepower and has hired a classy tech-team to prove it. But lordy, lordy, what a boring play it is.
The most telling laugh-line in this ponderous two-hander comes late in the play, when Ruth Steiner, the formidable author and teacher played by Lavin, declares that the only time she locks the door of her Greenwich Village apartment is “when I’m expecting burglars.”
The line carries pain, as well as laughter, since the person she has just let into her book-and-art-stuffed sanctuary (a visual symphony of high-minded clutter in Santo Loquasto’s design) is the young author who appropriated Ruth’s story (“my voice … my life”) for a book of her own.
In the subsequent showdown scene, which comes six years after Ruth first let this interloper in the door, the aged, ailing author finally acknowledges her trusted young friend and beloved protege for what she always was — a thief with no valuables of her own worth stealing.
Real sparks ignite in this scene between Ruth and Lisa Morrison (Sarah Paulson), the student who ingratiated herself so thoroughly as Ruth’s professional assistant and personal confidante (“It’s like a religious experience for me”) that she became like a daughter to the older woman. But by this time, the audience — who should be able to spot the payoff coming from the opening scene — is bone weary from the wait.
If Margulies doesn’t offer much in the way of plot or action, he does present us with a vital character in the brash and brilliant Ruth, who traveled in the bo-ho company of 1950s artists like Delmore Schwartz, with whom she had a life-defining affair. Nowadays, she wears her authorial laurels as confidently as she does the colorful scarves designed by costumer Jane Greenwood to match her moods. Although never less than riveting, Lavin subtly alters the intensity of her physical delivery to suggest the vulnerability beneath Ruth’s proud show of strength.
As Lisa, Paulson (“The Glass Menagerie”) doesn’t change that much. Not because this lithe thesp has discovered the fountain of youth, but because there’s not much to her character to begin with. While it’s essential for Lisa to be a bit of a nonentity to justify her appropriation of Ruth’s more vivid life experiences as her own, it paradoxically makes it difficult, if not impossible to accept the older woman’s avid interest in such a blank personality.
With all the hoo-hah about “recombinant” art that wannabe creatives freely appropriate from other artists’ work and scramble up as their own, Margulies, who teaches at Yale and travels in academic circles, has certainly touched on a controversial topic. Which would seem to make this relatively inexpensive property a natural for academic venues. But even eggheads might lose their patience with an intellectual match-up that makes no sense to begin with.