Collected Stories

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday October 12, 2011

Liz Hayes and Bobbie Steinbach star in Collected Stories, playing through October 30 at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown
Liz Hayes and Bobbie Steinbach star in Collected Stories, playing through October 30 at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown  (Source:Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

Stories about the maturation of a wide-eyed protégé and the decline of an accomplished mentor / friend / parent figure are plentiful. Even the sub-genre of this theme that takes place in the literary world offers an abundance from which to choose, particularly in films of recent years (2007's "Starting Out in the Evening," which pairs Frank Langella and Lauren Ambrose is a standout; the 2005 Adam Rapp project "Winter Passing," in which Zooey Deschanel and a J.D. Salinger-type writer played by Ed Harris forge a connection, not so much).

What makes Donald Margulies' "Collected Stories" seem so fresh is not the general theme or even the plot, but the writing. Line for line, Margulies has done what an author for the stage is supposed to do: He has wrought a play that rings with truthfulness, play, drama, and heart.

The New Repertory Theatre's production of "Collected Stories" is just as well considered and executed. Jenna McFarland Lord's set is so well appointed and looks so well lived in that one is tempted to take up residence--always a promising effect, given that live theater is all about drawing an audience into a fictional world for two hours.

David Reiffel's sound design, complete with lively jazz soundtrack. is the auditory equivalent of the scenic design, creating a comfortable space that welcomes you in but also asserts a sense of place and mood.

Deb Sullivan's lighting design underscores those elements, giving us wintry afternoon, late night, morning, and everything in between as the play unfolds across the span of several years.

But the real coup de grace are the two actors who bring the play to life and give those well-wrought lines of dialogue spirit and life. Bobbi Steinbach absolutely shines as Ruth, the older, Jewish writer whose short stories have won her acclaim, as well as a university professorship and generations of fans.

Liz Hayes displays range and depth as one of Ruth's younger readers, Lisa, whose ambitions to become a writer were sparked by Ruth's stories. The two meet in Ruth's book-lined apartment for the first time in order to talk about Lisa's assignment, a short story written for Ruth's class, but Lisa's jittery excitement and endless questions soon win over the reluctant Ruth. Lisa becomes Ruth's assistant and, eventually, her friend and acolyte.

There's more than a dash of a mother-daughter relationship between the two, of course, and it's natural given their ages and life histories. As Lisa grows personally and professionally, Ruth is proud, sardonic, and more than a little remorseful to be seeing a version of her own long-gone youth playing out before her in Lisa's rise.

For her part, Lisa eagerly takes in every lesson that Ruth offers her. Don't edit yourself prematurely; Don't worry what others will think; Don't hold back when a story grabs you and wants to be written. As her ability and accomplishments grow, Lisa eventually outstrips Ruth, producing a novel that's part homage and part appropriation of the very story Ruth never meant to share--or, perhaps, was never able to take charge of and shape for publication.

How it all plays out and where the story takes these two characters can be guessed pretty accurately early on, but that doesn't matter. Ruth and Lisa are richly drawn and even more richly portrayed. The script is nuanced; Bridget Kathleen O'Leary's direction brings out all the layers and lets the actors add their own hints and touches, from Lisa's furtive glances at Ruth's typewriter in the first scene (oh, the tantalizing presence of a page belonging to a new story!) to the deeply ambivalent, deeply shearing emotional forces (betrayal, manipulation, affection and love, ambition) that characterize the last exchange.

In the theater (as in life, some might note) every minute is precious. This production puts every minute to good use and delivers an energetic, engaging, and gratifying two hours.

The New Repertory Theatre’s production of "Collected Stories" plays at the Charles Mosesian Theater in the Arsenal for the Arts, located at 321 Arsenal Street in Watertown, until Oct. 30.

Tickets cost $28-$58 and can be obtained online at www.newrep.org or via phone at 617-923-8487. Seniors get $7 off full price. Student rush is $14.

Performance schedule: Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. (except for Oct. 15); Sundays at 2:00 p.m.

There will also be a Thursday matinee at 2:00 on Oct. 13 and a Wednesday evening performance at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 19.

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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.