Rubicon’s “Collected Stories” Balances Friendship, Loyalty, and Betrayal

PLAY REVIEW BY CARY GINELL

Donald Margulies’ play, Collected Stories, which concludes its run at the Rubicon Theatre Company this weekend, follows the relationship between an accomplished, celebrated writer of short stories and her protege in a story that raises more questions than it answers about friendship and integrity. First staged in 1996, the play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and was produced as a PBS special in 2002, starring Linda Lavin and Samantha Mathis. Eight years later, in 2010, Lavin reprised her role in a Broadway run of the show, with Sarah Paulson. 

The play traces the relationship between two women, Ruth Steiner, a professor and famed author, and Lisa Morrison, an eager, wide-eyed student who, at the beginning of the play, arrives to ask Ruth’s opinion of a short story she has written. Susan Clark, best known for her six years on television as Katherine Calder-Young Papadapolis in the sitcom Webster, plays Ruth as a woman of lofty talents and experience with an ego to match. She is so imperious, that she refuses to answer her own phone and doesn’t own an answering machine. Lisa, played by Meghan Andrews, herself a Broadway veteran (Frost/Nixon, The Grapes of Wrath) is initially like a starstruck teenager, feeling blessed to be breathing the same rarified air as her idol. To Lisa, meeting Steiner “is like a religious experience,” and she hangs on every word and bon mot of advice she eagerly devours from her hero. 

During the six scenes that encompass the play, the relationship grows and changes, as Lisa first becomes Ruth’s personal assistant, then close friend, and finally, her rival. At the outset, Ruth states her beliefs in sound-bytes: “Writing can’t be taught, talent can’t be learned. They are innate” and “write what you know.” It is this latter piece of advice that Lisa hangs onto, utilizing her own personal experiences to become nearly as accomplished a writer as her mentor. By the end of the play, she has run out of ideas (“I looted my diaries,” she wails), but uses her confidential friendship with Ruth to get her to open up about a romantic affair she had with a fellow writer. Lisa pounces on the idea like a hungry wolf and turns it into a successful story, however, when Ruth finds out, the final act is a painful confrontation that ends their friendship. 

It takes a lot of talent for two actors to appear this natural, but Clark and Andrews are both formidable performers and easily slip into their characters like a comfortable pair of slippers. Clark remains basically the same person throughout most of the play: plain-spoken, feisty, and straight-forward, with an ironic sense of humor that shows her character’s Jewish upbringing. Clark’s Ruth is terrifyingly intimidating to Lisa, and Clark is outstanding in communicating Ruth’s overbearing and intransigent personality from the very beginning. Andrews, however, undergoes subtle changes as her character grows older and becomes more of a peer to Ruth. Margulies’ believable script makes it easier for the performers to envelope their characters, but Andrews manages to do much more than just read her lines well.

By Scene 3, Lisa has clearly changed. She is no longer a hand-wringing, oversensitive student. Andrews pitches her voice lower to reflect her character’s growing maturity and confidence. Lisa now calls Ruth by her first name and isn’t afraid to contradict and even argue with her. By the end of the play, both women’s sharpened wits are used to injure one another, which is where Clark’s brilliance as an actress is summoned forth. For the first time, cracks have appeared in her armor. She is indignant in her revulsion of being taken advantage of, and turns on her friend with a vengeance. 

Lisa’s rationale for using Ruth’s personal relationship as fodder for a story is that their friendship had become so close, that she felt their lives had intersected and that any shared information belonged to both of them. This does not appear to be just a defensive rationalization; Lisa probably believes it herself. But now, Ruth’s advice, “Write what you know” has come back to haunt her. Riddled with what is presumably cancer, she feels betrayed and alone, and for the first time, she chain locks her door, a metaphor for her isolating herself from the friendship. “Have you no moral conscience?” she asks Lisa, and we, who have tried to empathize with Lisa throughout the play and root for her success, now feel resigned to agree with Ruth. 

Other than the concepts of friendship, trust, and loyalty, the play brings up the notion of ownership – do we really own our own stories? And if we choose to share them with others, whether they are close to us or not, does that grant the right to have others use or adapt them for their own purposes? The ideas communicated in Margulies’ play can be translated to the musical world as well. How close can two melodies get before one is presumed to have been appropriated from the other? These are all questions that have no concrete answers, but Collected Stories helps amplify themes that are becoming more and more relevant in a society where, thanks to the Internet, social media, and the omnipresence of cameras and recording devices, privacy is getting closer to becoming extinct than we realize.  

The play is sensitively directed by James O’Neil. Ruth’s solid, handsome, book-filled Greenwich Village apartment was designed by Thomas S. Giamario with props and set dressing by T. Theresa Scarano. 

Collected Stories runs through June 22 at the Rubicon Theatre Company. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.

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