In Donald Margulies’ 1996 play, the preferred laboratory is Professor Ruth Steiner’s (Rosalind Cramer, appropriately cantankerous, crotchety and cunning as required) Greenwich Village apartment. For 32 years, she invites and tutors the brightest lights of her post-graduate charges one-to-one. Success comes in two forms: the launch of a literary career; the reflected glory and inner satisfaction for the exclusively short-story master.
Steiner’s newest extra-curricular pupil is Lisa Morrison (Kelly Jakiel, radiant in the role), whose gifts threaten to overshadow her mentor’s over the 6-year span of the story. In much the same vein as Starting Out in the Evening (cross-reference below), it’s the shifting relationship between instructor and disciple that drives the drama. Margulies succeeds on several planes but a few too many predictable/obvious plot points weaken the overall effect.
Perhaps the subject matter is too close to home for the Brooklyn native (from the setting to shared background of creative/academic life). In their initial lessons—after being chided for the fact that “you don’t look like your story,” Lisa learns to purge her own speech of pitch-rising questions (TV gets the blame) and speak with authority. The notion that good stories come from within and the overwhelming need to share them via the printed word with the reader is central to what lies ahead. As well, a writer’s licence to “exaggerate the truth” is extolled after Lisa catches Ruth’s whopper told to a room full of Washington politicians who have power over the National Endowment for the Arts’ funding. While the merits of supporting the cause of starving artists using the same tactics as elected officials while they consider legislation or vie for re-election seem unimportant, it leaves this literary emperor with few moral clothes when she—much later—berates her devoted follower for committing the same “crime” of bending the truth.
The recurring unanswered telephone gag loses steam with every succeeding call—there’s no payoff to the setup. Finally, the too-on-the-nose request by Ruth of Lisa to take out the leaking trash significantly weakens the closing scenes that are still in search of a more satisfying conclusion.
Those quibbles aside, this is a production worth seeing. Director Saul Elkin has drawn performances of a very high order from the two women, utilizing their considerable skills and every inch of the stage to advantage. Their interaction moves convincingly from over-bearing/nervous through collegial professionals to scared-envious/adamant. As the run continues, the few line-blemishes will vanish and the inner rhythm of the dialogue will lift the pace and flow to the highest reaches.
The intimate confines of the Road Less Traveled Theatre—even with the non-existent backstage, which never came into play with the patrons or practitioners—are perfect for the one-set show. Koscielniak & O’Donnell have come up with a well-appointed living room/study and handled the brief foray to the 92nd Street YMCA with creative flair. Except for a missed wall-switch cue, Brian Cavanagh’s lighting solutions showed off the cast and Ann Emo’s varied costumes to excellent effect.
The uncredited jazz piano and clarinet tracks that largely signal a scene change (providing aural “cover” for the props to be reconfigured) are highly appropriate with snippets of George Gershwin and the easy lilt of Erik Satie infusing the music. Still, care must be taken to keep the levels low enough and truly under the dialogue—a small problem that was completely remedied in the second act.
With so much to say about a writer’s “voice,” insecurities (“Am I any good?”) and the necessarily lonely hours plying the craft, Collected Stories will resonate with those who dream up the words and those who can’t wait to turn their pages. JWR