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April 5, 2004 | by  | in Theatre |
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Collected Stories

Collected Stories is a little confusingly titled. This play isn’t a collection of stories. Rather, it chronicles the relationship of two women, a New York Professor of Creative Writing (and acclaimed short story writer, hence the title) and one of her post-grad students, over the course of a friendship spanning six years. Marguiles’ script investigates what happens when the power shifts in this friendship.

The play is bracketed by an exchange between the two women on the day of Lisa’s first tutorial with the legendary Ruth Steiner. “Oh,” calls Lisa as Ruth dangles the key to her Greenwich apartment out of the window, “you want me to let myself in?” “Yes,” Ruth yells back and then adds under her breath, “that’s just what I want you to do”.

This introduces an intriguing foreshadowing function that the dialogue will continue to perform throughout the play. Does Ruth – single, childless, semi-reclusive cynic – really want to let Lisa into her life? What will be the consequences if she does? Why, when Lisa reads a draft of Ruth’s new story, does she feel so “cheated” by an unresolved relationship? What’s up with all the references to Oedipus? What is the episode, unwritten of except in letters hidden in the back of novels, that defined Ruth’s early years? And why are the pair so divided over the morality of Woody Allen’s affair with his stepdaughter?

Director Miranda Harcourt, better known for her own performances, deals delicately with this script, loaded as it is with double entendre. The delivery is even-handed and natural, particularly during the first half as the relationship between the two characters is forged. A genuine sense of impending doom is established (“Don’t you know?” Ruth advises a despondent Lisa upon the publishing of her first, glowing, review, “There’s nothing worse than getting what you want.”), so that the audience goes to intermission knowing that something tumultuous and terrible must happen, but unsure what. Satisfyingly, the audience is allowed to do the investigative work themselves. Even as Collected Stories spirals towards its unavoidable and catastrophic closing moments, Harcourt allows each member of the audience to register inevitability in their own time.

Actor-wise, Harcourt is particularly well-served by seasoned actress Irene Wood in the role of Ruth. Wood is tremendous as the sartorial, spirited author. She sports an impeccable New York accent and glides smoothly from middle into old age over the course of the play. Ruth is dealt the bulk of the play’s comic lines, and Wood’s deadpan wit does them justice. As Lisa, Danielle Mason is suitably bumbling as the young student, and retains just enough of this up to the play’s end to maintain credibility, although her American accent is less consistent than Wood’s and Mason is occasionally outshone by her older counterpart. Mason’s most striking scene is one that she plays on her own. As Lisa reads excerpts of her first novel to a packed house at the 14th St Y, Mason is a perfect mix of shy embarassment and almost guilty pride.

With two actors and a single, small set, Collected Stories is a perfect piece for Circa Studio. The play is poignant and brave, thinking person’s theatre.

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