There is a lot to chew on in this production. Chew on in the way those of us of a certain age might chew on a #2 Mongol pencil, back when we used them. This is an intelligent exploration presented with a thought-full pace. And hats off to Margulies for creating a play in which two women do nothing but talk. Who would think THAT would be interesting?
Interesting it is, and much more. Ruth Steiner (Linda Lavin) is the archetype of the college professor, who is still an active award winning author, with whom everyone yearns to study but in whose cross hairs no one wants to get caught. Go to her apartment for lunch and you could end up being the main course. She lives above it all and maintains her perch even when she descends the stairs. People are safer if kept at arm’s length. This is her maxim.
Into her life comes Lisa Morrison (Sarah Paulson) who does not look like a serious writer, Steiner tells her to her face, but who does seem to have talent in spite of that. Lisa is so eager and intimidated that she is nearly shaking on their first meeting. One gets the feeling even her bowels are not to be trusted. She gains ground, however, by perseverance. When Steiner tells her not to take notes and try l-i-s-t-e-n-i-n-g instead, Lisa lasts only moments before the pad comes out. When she asks about the position of Personal Assistant for which Steiner is advertising, and is rebuffed, she asks again, and again and again.
Soon the initial skirmish is over and Lisa wins the day. It is almost textbook that she will soon ingratiate herself with Steiner, become a better writer than when she started, and threaten to topple the queen. This is in fact what happens, and in that area the story is lacking. You can hear the plot points unrolling in the distance like claps of thunder after a lightning bolt.
What is not textbook is the dénouement in which Steiner defends herself against a story line theft that is so egregious we are all grateful that she doesn’t own a gun. Margulies’ writing soars in the final scene as these two women square off against one another, and although the favor is pointed in Ruth’s direction, Paulson’s defense is masterful. You might think she is wrong, but, by golly she doesn’t – and she will tell you so in any style of chapter and verse you would like.
Lavin is a workhorse. She never gets ahead of where you are, and knows how to pace herself within the cloister of Ruth Steiner. Steiner’s opening to her pupil is measured down to the last teaspoon. As her pupil begins to spread her wings, Steiner is jealous and proud. When advantage is taken, she is also ruthless in defending herself.
Paulson grows on you. She is at that age when “ingénue” is no longer appropriate, and when she is given the opportunity to assume the posture of a character actor she shows her true colors. Lisa is a complicated role. Love and betrayal are not so opposed as we would like to think, and Paulson treads the tight rope with a fine sense of balance.
Margulies does not cast his net wide. He casts it deep. While most of the writing is not exceptional, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. Predictability takes a back seat to depth and passion.
At one point Lavin raises (her left) eyebrow by perhaps half an inch. She says nary a word, and doesn’t move any other muscle, but still communicates with this minimal gesture more than a lesser actor might squeeze from a long monologue. She gets a solid laugh too.."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"Splendid new production."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"When a confrontation finally occurs, as we knew it would, it's a joy to watch these two women face off."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"It’s skillful, diverting stuff, but essentially, light reading."
David Cote for Time Out NY
"The middling 1996 drama is being revived ... in a production that won’t change anyone’s opinion of it."
Jeremy Gerard for Bloomberg
"Though the "Stories" are familiar, they are still worth listening to, especially when told by such a master as Lavin."
David Sheward for Back Stage
"A solid piece of theatrical craftsmanship — in the expert hands of two fine actresses."
Michael Kuchwara for Associated Press
"Beautifully acted revival of ...schematic but entertaining literary-themed drama."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"Lordy, lordy, what a boring play it is."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...