Seesaws, robust debates, a two-hander play. Not things that regularly show up in a sentence together, that is unless you’re pondering situations that require balance to succeed. Weigh one side more heavily and suddenly the seesaw leaves you stranded, the debate turns to a lecture and the two-hander turns into the frustratingly emotionless production of Collected Stories, now onstage at 4th Wall Theatre Company.
Frustrating because the play itself (by Donald Margulies) is actually quite decent in a chewy, New York literary world kinda way. Ruth is a celebrated short story writer past her prime but still famous, now teaching young wanna be authors at an unnamed New York University. She becomes a mentor to Lisa, a promising student, and over the years the pair evolves past the teacher-student relationship, to close friends, to supportive peers to betrayer and the betrayed.
Riding high off the success of her debut short story collection, Lisa is terrified that she’s blown her load of inspiration. What on earth will she write about next, she fears? So, when Ruth reveals a long-ago infatuation and affair with the poet Delmore Schwartz (the very real American poet), Lisa seizes the story without permission and mines the details for her follow up novel, plummeting the pairs’ relationship into chaos. Was the material fair game, a respectful homage to a beloved mentor? Or was it a predatory and opportunistic appropriation?
Along the way, Margulies gives us lots of interesting insider baseball tips and views into the world of fiction authorship. “Telling takes away the need to write. It relieves the pressure. And once that tension dissipates, so does the need to relieve it. First, write it, then we’ll talk about it.” This, the advice from Ruth, to the young Lisa about spilling too much of the story she’s working on.
Discussions about why Lisa uses a particular image or word in her writing, how to use a declarative voice and that sentiment is anathema to running with a good story all play well in the confines of the show’s one setting, Ruth’s apartment (gorgeously realized by Kevin Rigdon with floor to ceiling bookcases packed with titles and sculptures and art pieces).
It may not be the most original, surprising or even thought-provoking play we’ve seen, but the discussion is meaty and the women's eventual collision is awaited eagerly enough.
Getting in the way of all of this decent story, however, is a casting/performance imbalance that sucks much of the air out of the experience.
The character of Ruth is a 50 something (aging as the play moves along) Jewish, brilliant, blunt, crabby, literary intellectual living alone and liking it that way. She drops Yiddishisms as often as she drinks tea (not coffee) and is very particular about which cottage cheese she eats and how her papers are to be arranged. She’s difficult, competitive and jealous, but not without warmth once you’ve earned it.
However, played by Kim Tobin-Lehl, Ruth becomes utterly flat. Whether she’s talking about writing or her great affair with Schwartz, we feel no passion. Her outrage with Lisa often comes across as comedy due to Tobin-Lehl’s inability to truly rise to anger. It’s a performance that feels both unprepared and snuffed out. Tobin-Lehl often shines when playing outrageously quirky characters on stage but here it feels as though the dry wit and reservedly biting nature of Ruth tripped her up into inertia. Mostly it just feels like the wrong actor for the part.
Director Jennifer Dean doesn’t help matters either with awkward transitions between emotions. One minute the pair are sparring, the next they are eating dinner together. Feelings of rabid jealousy quickly turn to spilling intimate secrets. Emotionally jerky as these scenes may have been on paper, Dean allows no breathing room or body language to help us make these great leaps with the characters.
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Luckily, we have Reagan Elizabeth playing Lisa on the other side of this equation. Nimble, present and evolving, Elizabeth injects Lisa with nervousness, growing confidence, hubris and entitlement as the show progresses. We cringe when she embarrasses herself, are thrilled when she learns, feel proud when she succeeds and we have mixed feelings at the lengths she'll ultimately go. All because Elizabeth puts it out there with emotional traction, no more so than when she’s freaking out about not having anything further to draw from in her writing.
“I’ve done my parents and my family, I’m not that angry anymore. I’m in therapy. My boyfriend is a lawyer!” It’s amusing dialogue, to be sure. But Elizabeth brings a sense of panic to it so that while we laugh, we also feel the rising anxiety that will eventually push her into questionable moral territory. Her's is the weighty performance that tilts that all-important balance equilibrium.
Under these circumstances, Collected Stories feels like half a play. A good half, mind you, but less than we want and certainly less than we’ve come to expect from the talents at 4th Wall.
Collected Stories continues through June 8 at Studio 101, Spring Street Studios, 1824 Sprint Street. For information, visit 4thwalltheatreco.com. $17-$53.