Battle Between Writers

Great performances save LTW's 'Collected Stories' from its chatty script

Live Theatre Workshop is presenting a quiet but provocative two-person show, Collected Stories, about a conflict between an accomplished writer and her protégée.

The work of prolific playwright Donald Margulies, (a Pulitzer Prize-winner in 2000 for Dinner With Friends), Collected Stories was originally produced in the late 1990s, eventually making its way to Broadway in 2010. Like most of Margulies' works, this dialogue-heavy drama has a small cast of characters who go about ordinary life, chatting earnestly and with sharp realism about life, love, art and relationships.

On paper, Margulies' plays can be boring; the clever talk goes on and on, and nothing much happens. But when his work is performed by capable actors, something extraordinary takes place: Strong currents of emotion emerge from behind all the chatter, and you realize that you've witnessed pivotal changes in the characters' lives.

Director Sheldon Metz has done well with his casting in LTW's production of Collected Stories. Veteran Tucson actor Cynthia Jeffery plays Ruth Steiner, a respected New York short-story writer and professor. Samantha Cormier takes on the part of Lisa, a young student and aspiring writer.

Jeffery's performance as Ruth starts out solidly; you absolutely believe that this is a deeply intelligent, somewhat eccentric writer. But she really brings it in the final scene, where Ruth is required to be vulnerable on every level—physically, emotionally and intellectually. Jeffery manages to convey Ruth's pain without compromising the character's innate strength and stubbornness.

Young Cormier has been a large presence around town this past season, acting in two Beowulf Alley productions, as well as LTW's Harvey, on top of directing a musical for Arizona Onstage. I occasionally find her acting to be a little broad, but I admire the distinctiveness of her characterizations: She's nearly unrecognizable in the persona of each new character.

To create Lisa, Cormier embodies a jittery physical presence. Her Lisa bounces around the stage, playing with her hair, unable to contain either her admiration for Ruth or her own burgeoning ambition.

In a series of scenes that take place throughout the 1990s (a distinctive marker is the characters' discussions of the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow sex scandal involving Farrow's adopted daughter), the relationship between the two women evolves from teacher-student to deep friendship—before finally shifting into a fierce rivalry.

The central conflict in the play has to do with the relationship between art and life: How much can we infer about writers' personal lives from their work? Is it ethical for them to take material from the lives of their friends and family?

The narrative arc is hinted at heavily as the women discuss the stories they're writing. At one point, while they argue over the plot of one of Ruth's stories, they strongly suggest what is to come late in the play. I heard someone next to me loudly whisper, "That's foreshadowing."

Yes, indeed it is—and there's too much of it. What happens is quite predictable, and it takes a long time to get there. There's all that clever talking to be done, you see. While Margulies' many chatty scenes serve to round out the characters, and help us come to care about them, they do go on for quite a while.

Director Metz and his actors make every effort to keep the blocking lively and engaged, despite the fact that reading and writing are inherently sedentary activities. Still, you'd have to be nearly superhuman not to get a little restless after 2 1/2 hours of people talking about books that don't exist.

The actors make full use of the stage, and interact a great deal with the set, which almost becomes a third character. Resident set-designers Richard and Amanda Gremel have created a beautiful, cluttered Manhattan apartment for Ruth, full of books and piles of paper that she stubbornly refuses to move. We see Ruth and Lisa's shifting relationship play out in the characters' tussles over the space and its objects.

That explosive final scene, where Ruth confronts Lisa with an accusation, is worth the occasional mild tedium of some of the early scenes. Both Jeffery and Cormier play it with a potent mix of tenderness and outrage, and neither the play nor the production fully condemns either character. We can see each woman's point of view—making for interesting post-show discussions.

"Which one was right, in the ethics of it?" I heard someone ask after the lights went up. That's the kind of question you want your audience to ask as they leave a production.

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