A tale of two women

Powerful acting, tight direction fuel Circle's riveting Collected Stories

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If you're unfamiliar with this play, like I was until I saw it opening night, the title may throw you off. I guess I thought the work was some sort of anthology of short scenes?#34;not one solid work. But Collected Stories, by Donald Margulies, is actually about two women, a university writing professor known for her perfectly-crafted short stories, and her youthful, aspiring writer protégé who ends up taking her own plots and characters from the older woman's life. Hence the ironic title.

Margulies' two-character play is perfectly suited to Circle Theatre's Blackbox venue. This is the experimental wing of the company known for its no-frills series that often takes a chance on smaller, less technically complicated works during down time or open slots in their season. The focus is always upon powerful acting and tight direction.

This riveting work about friendship, rivalry, and aging is simultaneously funny and sad. Though it has a tendency to get a tad longwinded toward the end, I thoroughly enjoyed the show. It would provide great food for discussion.

Director Lisa Spierer keeps her production moving briskly. Such a verbose, one-set work might easily have become an exercise of "talking heads," but the actresses create a strong, believable connection.

The play examines the relationship between two women, an acclaimed writer and her adoring young fan who is in need of a mentor. The older woman, Ruth, is played by Marie Goodkin. She's a crusty member of the New York literati who's constantly lecturing and dropping names like Bellow, Saroyan and Doctorow. But she's got a tiny soft spot, a motherly impulse toward Lisa, portrayed by Kelly Schumann. [Schumann's day job is in display sales at wednesday journal.]

Lisa comes to the instructor's Greenwich Village apartment for a tutoring session, a worshipful neophyte writer who's read all Ruth's work. This student is a sponge eager to soak up everything she can from her mentor.

By the end of their first session, Lisa is already edging toward a much bigger role in Ruth's life. She becomes the writer's personal assistant and confidante. At this point, fans of old films will recognize the All About Eve plotline kicking in. Margulies doesn't really rip off the Bette Davis-Anne Baxter classic but there are some definite similarities in theme and conflict.

Both actresses create an intense and believable connection. Each makes us sympathize with her character, although neither is particularly likeable.

Goodkin and Schumann exhibit great chemistry and play off each other well.

Lisa is a gawky, gushing fan when she first shows up. "Being here is like a religious experience for me," she exclaims. The nervous young woman tries too hard and talks too fast. The cantankerous Ruth is clearly not amused. She's embarrassed yet intrigued by Lisa's childlike admiration.

Eventually they become almost as close as mother and daughter. In an assumed confidence, Ruth even tells Lisa about her early love affair with a dissipated, long-dead poet.

Lisa is perhaps a somewhat underwritten role, yet Schumann works wonders with the character. She triumphs as she transforms from a ditzy student to a successful writer in full possession of herself. She's not a monster, yet this naive girl who's been plucked from among Ruth's students for special tutoring turns into a calculating rival right before our eyes. Within six scenes she evolves from protégé to betrayer.

Goodkin is credible as the brittle, distinguished intellectual who's often arrogant and condescending. She effectively never softens her essentially unsympathetic character. In the early scenes she's constantly peering over her glasses and checking her watch. Explaining why she has no telephone answering machine, this borderline recluse says, "I have no children. My parents are dead. What could possibly be so urgent?"

Later, when Ruth reads a galley copy of her young friend's soon-to-be-published novel, she discovers Lisa's cribbed her very private, long-ago love story. To Ruth this is the ultimate betrayal. Lisa has plundered her benefactor. There's a ferocious, climactic clash between the two writers.

The plot is somewhat predictable and at times Margulies grows verbose. But these women are writers, so we expect them to be talkers. The bulk of their dialogue is witty and entertaining.

The simple black set with a door and window representing Ruth's apartment is uncredited in the program. We sense from lines in the play that Ruth's cozy, well-ordered world would no doubt be equipped with lots of art, plants, bookcases and such. This looks like the Kramdens' flat from The Honeymooners. But it really doesn't matter. The focus is all upon the women and their relationship.

I liked this show a lot but in the back of my head I wondered if non-writers will find it as fascinating. For instance, Margulies questions what good writing is and whether it can be taught. There are lots of issues beyond the surface level competitions. Are confidences shared between friends fair game as a source for literature? Who owns memories?

Peter Storms' sound design is solid. Jeff Cass is stage manager and designed the lighting.

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