As anyone who saw the recent production of Time Stands Still at the Center Stage Theater knows, Donald Margulies is one of our finest contemporary playwrights. But his 1996 drama Collected Stories, currently being revived at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre, isn’t holding up all that well. In spite of Jim O’Neil’s well-acted and well-paced production, the play seems both contrived and dated. And its central debate about privacy versus artistic license — which never had much resonance outside of the rarified world of writers — now seems rather archaic.
The two-character drama concerns the relationship between celebrated short-story writer Ruth Steiner (Susan Clark) and Lisa Morrison, a student of hers who becomes her assistant and, eventually, her close friend. A bit like a literary All About Eve, the play depicts Lisa’s breakthrough as a writer and its effects on an increasingly needy Ruth. Their complicated relationship ultimately explodes when, in need of material for a novel, Lisa makes use of stories from the older woman’s past. Somewhat disingenuously, she calls her appropriation an homage to her mentor. Ruth sees it as more of a betrayal.
Both actresses do excellent work; we viscerally feel the ways the characters change and the ways they stay the same. But they can’t hide the central hole in the writing: It feels implausible that Ruth would open up in such a way, especially to a hungry, young colleague. What’s more, two decades on, her argument that some events and personalities are off-limits is essentially irrelevant. In an era of Facebook likes and NSA surveillance, privacy is, sadly, an outmoded concept; artists routinely appropriate real-life stories and shape them into works of art, or at least entertainment.
So the play, which runs through June 22, comes across as a relic of an earlier time, full of smart dialogue but little emotional juice. Live theater does its most valuable work when presenting plays that are for and about our contemporary world or timeless classics that continue to resonate. One has to wonder when leaving Collected Stories — what’s the point of devoting so much time, effort, and artistry to a work that fits neither description?