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Collected Stories -- Theater Review

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It's easy to see why Donald Margulies' two-hander drama "Collected Stories" is receiving a Broadway revival with this third major production since its 1997 premiere featuring a pre-stardom Debra Messing. This literary variation on "All About Eve" contains two meaty roles for actresses in its portrait of the shifting relationship between a celebrated fiction writer and her young acolyte.

The Manhattan Theatre Club, which mounted the off-Broadway original, also is responsible for this production, which follows right on the heels of its presentation of the playwright's "Time Stands Still" in the same venue.

Linda Lavin and Sarah Paulson step into the respective roles of Greenwich Village-based short-story writer Ruth Steiner (Grace Paley seems an obvious inspiration) and Lisa Morrison, her student and new assistant.

At first the young woman obviously is star-struck, fawning with admiration for her employer and marveling over such things as answering the phone to find "Ed" Doctorow on the line.

She also finds a powerful mentor in the older woman, who offers pointed but clearly dead-on criticism of her protege's fledgling literary efforts. But as time marches on-the play takes place over six scenes, spanning as many years-the dynamic between them alters. Lisa's first published collection of stories garners literary acclaim, with Ruth reacting with a complex mixture of pride and jealousy over the young woman's success.

Margulies' play certainly is schematic -- the audience pretty much sees where it's going right from the beginning -- but his characterizations are so incisive and his dialogue so rich that one hardly minds. The details of the New York literary scene are rendered with a rich authenticity; there's plenty of in-the-know name dropping, and the play gets one of its biggest laughs with a simple re-creation of the iconic 92nd Street Y logo.

Handed one of her richest roles, Lavin tears into it with gusto, beautifully lacing Ruth's acerbic wit with perfectly timed doses of stringent humor. Her riveting delivery of a lengthy monologue in which Ruth describes her long-ago love affair with the celebrated poet Delmore Schwartz is similar in its quiet intensity to the one about George Raft in "Broadway Bound," for which she won a 1987 Tony Award. And she's deeply affecting in the final scenes in which Ruth reveals her angry bitterness over what she considers Lisa's literary betrayal.

Paulson also is very effective in portraying her character's emotional and physical transition from star-struck naivete to confident sophistication.

It's all rendered on a marvelously realistic, book-lined set courtesy of Santo Loquasto that easily conveys the feeling of having been lived in for some three decades.

Venue: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York (Through June 6)
Presented by: Manhattan Theatre Club
Playwright: Donald Margulies
Cast: Linda Lavin, Sarah Paulson
Scenic designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Original music/sound designer: Obadiah Eaves