Originally published on JewishBoston.com.
The teacher-student relationship is held in such high esteem in Jewish tradition that our sages compare it to that of a parent and child. But as students progress, they can become colleagues and even rivals to their former mentors. This challenging dynamic is at the heart of Collected Stories, the 1997 play by Donald Margulies now playing at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown.
Collected Stories largely succeeds on the strength of its two dynamite performers, Liz Hayes as emerging writer Lisa Morrison and Bobbie Steinbach as her mentor, Ruth Steiner. Steinbach creates a figure who is equal parts Philip Roth and Elaine Stritch; a figure to be reckoned with, surely, but she doesn’t overwhelm the stage. Her measured delivery makes it clear that Ruth is a thinker, sometimes to the point of thinking away her emotions.
She is evenly matched by Hayes, who grows from a nervous grad student to a rising star in her own right in the course of the evening. Her nuanced aging from scene to scene is itself a feat; that she remains lovable despite some questionable choices in the second act is a triumph.
Those questionable choices — foremost of which is the student’s decision to base her debut novel on stories from her mentor’s youth, writing in the Jewish immigrant milleua for which Steiner was famous — leave much to be discussed when the final curtain falls. And herein lies the strength of Collected Stories: there’s no clear answer to the dilemmas presented, providing plenty of conversation fodder for your after-theater nightcap. But this also reveals a weakness of the play. Like the character of Ruth Steiner, Collected Stories runs the risk of thinking away any emotions.
The heart of the play should be the relationship between the two women, which we see grow and dissolve over the course of several years. But as staged by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary, Collected Stories feels more like a case study than a drama. I was left intrigued by the ethical dilemma presented but cold by the relationship.
This is a handsomely designed production, with a detail-rich unit set by Janna McFarland Lord (filled with props by Joe Stallone) gorgeously lit by Deb Sullivan. One wonders if the lengthy pauses between scenes (presumably covering costume changes, and not just to showcase David Reiffel’s sound design) hurt the momentum of emotional involvement while providing giving ample time to marinate on the themes of the show.
Collected Stories is now playing at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Charles Mosesian Theater, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA 02472, through October 30. Tickets are Full Price $28-$58. Seniors $7 off full price. Student rush $20. Call: 617-923-8487 or buy online at www.newrep.org.
Photo by Andrew Brilliant/ Brilliant Pictures. l. to r. Liz Hayes as Lisa and Bobbie Steinbach as Ruth in Collected Stories.