In theory, the proudest moment for a mentor is when the protégé surpasses her in achievement. Why else cultivate their talents, share hard-won industry secrets and become invested in their successes? But in practice, it’s not always that simple, as Donald Margulies’ searing 1996 drama “Collected Stories” shows. In reality, sometimes the student learns a little too much from the master, a little too well.
The Bard’s Town Theatre opened a strong production of “Collected Stories” last night in the theater above their Highlands pub/restaurant. It’s a fitting anchor for a season that has included two newer plays about writers and academe, Gina Gionfriddo’s feminist interrogation “Rapture, Blister, Burn” and William Missouri Downs’ Brechtian romp “The Exit Interview.”
Directed by Andrew Epstein, “Collected Stories” is a powerhouse showcase for the acting talents of Carol Dines and Lenae McKee Price, who do Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize-finalist two-hander proud by portraying the subtleties of their characters’ gradual role reversal with equal parts ferocity and vulnerability.
Dines plays Ruth Steiner, an acclaimed short story writer who teaches graduate fiction workshops at a New York university. She is confident and imperious, and quick to put nervous novice writer Lisa Morrison, played by Price, in her place during their first one-on-one meeting in Steiner’s Greenwich Village apartment (an on-point set design by Epstein and artistic director Doug Schutte).
Dines gives Steiner a prickly instability that flashes between her ex cathedra proclamations (“Telling [a story] takes away the need to write it.”), while Price infuses Lisa’s hand-wringing awe with a neediness that is almost embarrassing — and so, quite effective.
Over the course of the play, the two women grow closer — the protégé and personal assistant becomes a confidante and published author herself, as the hard-as-nails teacher becomes a sympathetic shoulder and friend. When Lisa reaches for the topic of her first novel, though, she bypasses her own experiences and instead mines Ruth’s as the young lover of dissolute poet Delmore Schwartz in Boho 1950s Manhattan, which Ruth had never written about herself.
This betrayal — or is it? — is revealed in a scene where Lisa gives a high-profile public reading of the prologue to her new book before it’s published, and we hear Ruth’s story echoing back to us. (Side note: Price delivers Lisa’s reading a little too well — early-career fiction writers like Lisa rarely perform like that at the podium.) The shift in power dynamic is complete — the student has passed the master, but at what price?
Here’s where every writer in the room will lean in — is any story you hear fair game? Who owns experience? What do writers owe each other? What responsibility do we have to tell our own truths, and is there ever an expiration date attached? It’s been nearly 20 years since this play premiered, but the questions remain relevant (and oddly enough, an otherwise-dated conversation about Woody Allen is once again timely). Dines and Price roar through a dynamic showdown between Ruth and Lisa that drags it all onto the floor for questioning.
But “Collected Stories” isn’t just an inside-baseball peek into the messy lives of fiction writers who vulture the lives of others for fodder. Margulies has written two intriguing female characters in Ruth and Lisa. A play that not only passes the Bechdel Test (so coined by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the work must show more than one woman, who talk to each other, about something other than a man) but allows its women to be both sympathetic and unlikable without dealing in sentimentality is more and more a rare thing.
Ultimately, Ruth isn’t as hard as she’d like to pretend, Lisa not as naïve. But each needs to be that thing for the other, until they can’t anymore and all of their illusions, self- and otherwise, are scattered about the apartment like pages from a failed manuscript.
“Collected Stories” runs through August 3 at The Bard’s Town (1801 Bardstown Rd.).