nytheatre.com review by Heather McAllister
April 30, 2010
In Collected Stories, Donald Margulies examines the love/hate competition/sustenance found in the closest, most precious of women's relationships: mother/daughter. But the two women we meet here aren't actual mother and daughter—rather they're mentor and student, who emotionally fill that void for one another for good and bad. The love, the pride, the terrible need for approval, the sky-high demands on each other, from each other, all seem so right, yet in this story, they go so horribly awry.
Reminiscent of All About Eve, we find the beautiful young protege Lisa meeting successful professor/author Ruth in her cozy Greenwich Village apartment for a tutorial. Lisa is star-struck, worshipful, and so starved for approval her hunger is palpable. The imperious Ruth is curmudgeonly, cautious, and horribly honest with her new student. Is all as it seems? Will an alliance form? Or will the bell ring, sending them into their separate corners?
Over six scenes spanning six years, Ruth opens her heart, and Lisa blooms under her care.
Moving past teacher/student, they become peers and then friends. Lisa complains to Ruth how her latest short story is lacking, and infuriating because of its harsh ending; Ruth explains how that mirror to the uncertainties and turnarounds of life is, in its awful honesty, a perfectly flawed reflection. Yes, life sometimes is terribly unfair, and yes, the unthinkable sometimes becomes our horrible truth. The resolution of Collected Stories reflects that same flawed, ugly truth of life. Because we grow to care deeply about these two women, that unfairness from the broken mirror of life cuts deeply.
As their friendship expands, Lisa's hunger grows alongside her talent. As life keeps turning the pages, with each chapter we see strength renewed, and ugly lies revealed, ending the play with a fantastic, gut wrenching finale.
Lynne Meadow's direction propels the story forward naturally, fluently, powerfully.
Linda Lavin is amazing as the professor Ruth. Brusque, abrasive, bossy. Funny, quirky, and beautifully eloquent. A warm and loving woman who has ended up as isolated and lonely in her apartment as if it were a hermitage. As Ruth slowly reveals her heart, and her past, Lavin draws us in effortlessly. You can't help but fall in love with her. Wonderfully vulnerable and frequently surprising, strong and smart, wise and witty, Lavin's Ruth becomes a mother to us all. To see her hurt is almost unbearable.
Sarah Paulson's beautiful, complex performance as Lisa begins simply, and grows like poison ivy, crowding out everything it shares space with, stunning yet oh so deadly. Steely and ultimately terrifying in the truth of her portrayal, a study in contrasts, Paulson's, sweet/selfish, beautiful/ugly character is riveting.
I left the theatre thinking of the tale of the Farmer and the Viper: A farmer took a trod-upon little snake into her home, nursing it back to strength, until one day the snake suddenly bit her. "Why did you do this, after all I've given you?" the woman cries. As it slithers away, the snake answers, "you knew I was a snake when you brought me home."
It's a credit to Donald Margulies and this production how fervently I hoped Ruth would chop the head off that damn snake.