Monday, November 29, 2010

Theater review: Fine performances mark nuanced, subtle 'Collected Stories'

Barbara Bradshaw and Kim Morgan Dean
in Collected Stories.
(Photo by George Schiavone)

By Hap Erstein

Most productions of Donald Margulies‭’ ‬wily,‭ ‬articulate drama‭ ‬Collected Stories portray the relationship between renowned short story writer Ruth Steiner and her persistent protégé Lisa Morrison as the literary equivalent of‭ ‬All About Eve. ‭

For despite her seeming innocence and adoration of the older writer,‭ ‬the ambitious Lisa ultimately betrays her trust,‭ ‬making public a very personal reminiscence,‭ ‬using it as the basis for her first novel.

But in the hands of director Margaret Ledford,‭ ‬deftly drawing a pair of remarkable performances from Barbara Bradshaw‭ (‬Ruth‭) ‬and Kim Morgan Dean‭ (‬Lisa‭)‬,‭ ‬the play becomes something more balanced and nuanced,‭ ‬asking us to consider the artistic and personal ethics involved,‭ ‬leaving it up to the audience to decide how they feel about the ownership of the story.

You could call‭ ‬Collected Stories an issue play,‭ ‬if it were not brimming with such fascinating,‭ ‬fully dimensional characters.‭ ‬Ruth Steiner is a meticulous writer who spouts wisdom about the craft with curmudgeonly affection.‭ ‬Undoubtedly at a sacrifice of her own literary output,‭ ‬she has devoted years to mentoring young writers of promise through classes and tutorials at NYU.

As the play begins,‭ ‬an apparently intimidated Lisa enters Ruth’s Greenwich Village apartment for a coaching session with the legendary woman.‭ ‬All nervous flutter,‭ ‬Lisa speaks with the cadences of a Valley Girl,‭ ‬which make her all the more difficult to take seriously.‭

Yet she manages to worm her way into Ruth’s life,‭ ‬becoming her clerical aide,‭ ‬a job which comes with the perk of intimate attention and editing suggestions on her own writing.‭ ‬Gradually,‭ ‬Lisa begins speaking better and dressing with a new sophistication,‭ ‬as Ruth rubs off on her.‭ ‬Soon,‭ ‬she has a book of her short stories published and critically well received.

One day,‭ ‬Ruth confides in Lisa the details of a life-changing love affair she had years earlier with the tortured,‭ ‬alcoholic poet‭ ‬Delmore Schwartz.‭ ‬When Lisa uses the story,‭ ‬barely fictionalized,‭ ‬in her debut novel,‭ ‬Ruth feels understandably betrayed.‭ ‬But as Lisa explains,‭ ‬she was only being true to her artistic impulses,‭ ‬just as Ruth long taught her.‭

Dean,‭ ‬returning to South Florida for this production,‭ ‬reminds us why she quickly became one of the most accomplished young actresses in the region in the few short years she lived down here.‭ ‬In addition to the impressive transition she makes from naïve student to cunning professional writer,‭ ‬she retains a bit of the former in a tasty scene in which she reads and relishes her first‭ ‬New York Times review.

Bradshaw is such a wryly comic performer that she rarely gets a juicy dramatic role like Ruth,‭ ‬but she holds her own tutorial in how to mesmerize an audience when she does.‭ ‬Here she gives a very layered characterization,‭ ‬alternately steely and maternal,‭ ‬tough and gentle.‭ ‬The years are erased as she recalls her youth with her idol-lover,‭ ‬and she rises to the demands of the final payoff scene with consummate skill.

If the performance rings a bit false,‭ ‬it is because Ruth is frequently described as being Jewish and Bradshaw never convinces us of that ethnic background,‭ ‬no matter how many Yiddish phrases she drops into her conversation.‭ ‬A minor quibble.

Douglas Grinn contributes a wonderfully textured writer’s apartment,‭ ‬full of antiquated equipment‭ ‬--‭ ‬a dial phone,‭ ‬an electric typewriter‭ ‬--‭ ‬that silently tell us about Ruth.‭ ‬There are plenty of reasons to see this Mosaic production,‭ ‬and the play itself is high on the list.‭ ‬But at the top are‭ ‬surely the two memorable performances that breathe such vitality into Margulies‭’ ‬words.

COLLECTED STORIES,‭ ‬Mosaic Theatre,‭ ‬American Heritage School,‭ ‬12200‭ ‬West Broward Blvd.,‭ ‬through Sunday,‭ ‬Dec.‭ ‬5.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$37.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬954‭) ‬577-8243.

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