“If she were alive today,” Ruth Steiner (Linda Lavin) caustically comments, “Thelma Ritter would play me in the movies.”
Donald Margulies from Collected Stories
Though she might readily have executed the requisite raised-eyebrow and dry humor, I doubt marvelous Ms. Ritter could’ve delivered the additional cool, smooth gravitas and grace offered by Linda Lavin in a part that seems custom fit.
Ruth Steiner was much celebrated for a book of short stories written in her twenties.
Forty plus years later (1990), her well-trod path reaches only back and forth from the university where she teaches, with the occasional foray to lecture or consult. She’s academically and historically respected but has had neither husband nor children, choosing instead to focus on ambitious young student acolytes. Her book-lined Greenwich Village apartment is both refuge and fortress. She owns no answering machine and lets the phone ring off the hook.
When Lisa Morrison (Sarah Paulson) arrives for a graduate tutorial, Ruth is—tolerant. Young Lisa is not at all what was expected. She’s fresh, open, optimistic, blonde, and pretty. “I had someone darker in mind in all respects,” comments Ruth, based on the story she’s reviewed. Lisa gushes about the opportunity to work with one of her heroines. Ruth bristles. Still, the girl is smart and talented. Potential is irresistible. And Ruth sees shades of herself.
During the six year course of the play, Lisa progressively insinuates herself into Ruth’s life as her assistant and eventually her friend. At first resisting the constant, somewhat excessive attentions—at one point, ordering the cluttered desk, Lisa literally straightens a Kleenex emerging from a pop-up box—Ruth grows accustomed to, and quietly grateful for Lisa’s company.
One comfortable afternoon, a conversation about Woody Allen’s relationship with his stepdaughter elicits Ruth’s observation that “the allure of a famous older man is a very powerful thing.” Lisa presses the opening to seduce her mentor into revealing the (suspected) story of an early affair with Delmore Schwartz, the charismatic, alcoholic poet. Ruth had been “one of the passionate, virginal good girls.” She still considers her year of holding him during his cold sweats and sewing his pants her “shining moment.” Lavin’s voice catches as Ruth unsuccessfully tries to suppress her emotions. At the end of the recollection, she’s almost keening. The years drop away. It’s a point of intimacy on which the tale turns and quite wonderful to watch.
With Ruth’s help, Lisa’s writing develops into something worthy of publication in Grand Street (Journal), the one publication to which her mentor has not written a supportive letter. Ruth is miffed. When Lisa’s first book of short stories is reviewed by The New York Times, Ruth both praises and damns her, unable to get past feelings of envy and under-appreciation. A story she herself has written, the first she’s given to her protégée for an opinion, is met with qualified, forced praise and retrospectively fatal lack of recognition as to its subject matter.
Lisa absents herself more, growing stronger and literally straighter. She acquires sufficient confidence to talk back to Ruth and becomes surprisingly clever at negotiating the world of letters to which she aspires. In direct counterpoint, Ruth’s vital life force seems to diminish before our eyes. A betrayal in the last scene shows Lisa in full success mode, a confident, changed woman. It takes every bit of what’s left of Ruth’s agonized, furious power to confront the girl she loved and trusted above all others. Ultimately, Lisa’s motivations remain unclear. What we witness is wrenching and raw. Both women are immensely affecting—Lisa protesting, rationalizing? and physically flailing; Ruth more contained, but also more vulnerable, crying out with the broken guttural wail of a Greek Tragedian. The scene is wrenching and raw. At the end, passions spent, a price is paid.
Linda Lavin is simply superb. She’s played this part twice onstage and is clearly intimate with every nuance of her character. The individualistic manner in which she imbues one- syllable comments like “y-a-us” (yes) and “wha-it” (what) with humor, irony, sarcasm and intelligence may be one of the wonders of modern theater. Her rolling eyes and frozen, open jaw project as articulately as Margulies wonderful script. Her hands are balletic. Lavin also portrays stubborn, self-righteous, poignant, and ultimately broken with full whomping credibility.
Sarah Paulson holds her own on the stage with a virtuoso. The subtlety with which she shows us Lisa’s evolution rests in far more than a pointedly changed coiffure or the excellently utilized body language which expands into the space. We actually watch her naiveté and intimidation peel away and listen to the progressive confidence in her speech. Unspoken thoughts are effectively shared in admirably economic fashion. She even manages to shade her final all-out defense with just a bit of confusion.
Lynne Meadow’s terrific direction is invisible. Which is about the highest compliment one can pay. The stage is well used, the characters true, recognizable and beautifully realized. The timing is gorgeous.
Santo Loquasto’s sets are always eloquently detailed. Note the six-foot ladder clearly there to reach floor to ceiling books, the old hi fi and artwork eminently suitable to arty, academic intelligentsia. He angles his walls for optimum interest, allowing us to see into an appropriate kitchen and offers a single round window indigenous to apartments of a certain era.
Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Donald Margulies is justifiably having a helluva year. The well received, Time Stands Still, which had an earlier run at Manhattan Theater Club will be revived in the fall. Here again we have a smart, articulate, insightful play. His story is both specific and universal. It’s as if one is grabbed from the stage. The theater dissolves.
This is a sharp, concentrated piece about ambition, creation, susceptibility, expediency and cost…as much as it is about the need for connection and fulfillment. It’s a story about Ruth Steiner and Lisa Morrison with whom you’ll spend a memorable evening.
(If I ever meet Margulies, I have a question about the ending I conjecture is not unique to me.)
Alix Cohen won a 2010 Journalism Award from the New York Press Club.
Collected Stories by Donald Margulies
Directed by Lynne Meadow
Linda Lavin & Sarah Paulson
Presented by The Manhattan Theater Club
Samuel J.Friedman Theater
261 West 47th Street
Through June 13