On April 28 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club officially started unfolding Donald Margulies' Collected Stories — a Pulitzer Prize also-ran in its day (1997) and one of his best — so let the head games begins. There's a lot of subliminal sword-fencing going on here, a lot of silent screaming, but rarely does any of it crack the calm, civilized surface. The setting is the comfortably cluttered Greenwich Village apartment of Ruth Steiner, a once-rising literary light who has dimmed to medium wattage and become mentor to promising writers. Enter a bright, shining, young case-in-point, Lisa Morrison, fairly bursting at the seams with hero-worship and prerequisite promise. Soon she's Ruth's assistant, then she's receiving the kind of acclaim that marked Ruth's arrival and eventually she makes her move into the big time, leaving her old teacher in the dirt crying foul.
In contrast to the cluttered physical surroundings, the real drama is the internal one raging in the smart, pristine minds of these two friends-turning-enemies. Under the direction of Lynne Meadow, MTC's artistic director, this cerebral catfight between two intelligent women slowly builds to a lady-or-the-tigress ending.
Linda Lavin's Ruth is constantly jolted by the abrupt emotional shifts of Sarah Paulson's Lisa and warily circles her would-be fan-and-friend for two hours, drawing out the words of carefully phrased questions, inching into the young girl's mind to determine the depths of her ambition. Lisa responds sharply or silently in ways that damage and jeopardize their uneasy friendship until an action of hers is read by Ruth as naked betrayal. Lisa counters it was an act of honor.
The heavy hand of Eve Harrington is never tipped here. If there is a winner, the audience is left to decide. Margulies' even-handed writing allows you that luxury.
"It's all in the subtext," he said, "but what's really wonderful about the production that Lynn put together here is the respect for the material is so profound that every moment has really been explored. And this is music to a playwright's ears." Lead "singer" Lavin came in for particular praise from him: "She was really meant to play this role," he decreed. "I liked the utter lack of sentimentality. I love her ability to be wry and ironic one moment and then heartbreaking the next. It's in the writing I have to say, but it's so wonderful to see it brought so effortlessly to life. Linda is the right instrument for this part. I mean, I've seen a lot of extraordinary actresses play this part — Maria Tucci, Uta Hagen, Helen Mirren did it in London — and yet Linda has a kind of authenticity. Maybe it's the Jewishness where she has an innate sense of the rhythms, of the music, of the language of the play.
"I think I always write in rhythms. That's how a writer creates character — through the rhythm of the speech. If you have the right instrument for the piece, that actor or instrument can find the rhythm and become intrinsic to who that character is and intrinsic to the performance. That's what we see happening to Linda's performance."
Paulson puts up a ferocious fight for her character — more than her predecessors in the part — to convince you that she was operating with the best of intentions. In rehearsal, neither Margulies nor Meadow told her the truth about her character.
"I know what the truth is," she said, "and I played the truth — the truth that I know. I think the only way to do this is to believe 100 percent that she didn't do anything wrong.
"That's why the play speaks to people. Everyone has probably had some experience in their life where there's that dicey moment in a friendship where 'Did you step over the bounds?' or 'Were the bounds set too high?' People know what that's like."
Meadow's direction of Paulson maintains the delicate balance of the two characters as they gradually seesaw, over six scenes and six years, to opposite places from where they started. The protégé has become the mentor; the mentor, the protégé.
"I really wanted Sarah to go through the six-year period beginning very naively and evolving very believably into someone who comes into her own," said Meadow. "As a young person, she has a lot of confidence, but it's mixed — as we have seen with very many people — with a kind of insecurity. We wanted her to be a believable character right from the beginning — ambitious, insecure, an eager student.
"I very much identified with the character of Lisa. What we all agreed upon is that this is a story with two points of view — and what Lisa Morrison is doing in the play has a real basis in doing right. Both Lisa and Ruth do right, and they do wrong. I root for both of them, and I wanted to present both of their sides equally.
"Ruth's desire to control things — her students, whatever — is very extreme. I think you see that side of her personality so you understand how being in the presence of someone who exerts such a control might make you want to find your own way."
[flipbook] You couldn't prove it by Ruth Steiner, but Lavin has an aversion to repeating roles: "I once did a revival of something I did, and I decided never to do it again. I didn't understand that you don't repeat something. That was years and years ago. Now, I understand it. You come to it fresh. You come to it with your memory — I mean, we do have memory, after all, and you think, 'Oh, this is the way I liked it' — but then you go 'Wait a minute,' and Lynn'd say, 'How about this?' so you try something new. And to deconstruct is what the artist is all about, isn't it? Our work is about deconstruction. It's not about repetition. That's important. I have to keep learning."
Ruth is the only other role she has repeated, but she has done it four times and seems miraculously in-the-moment. "You bring who you are, and who I am is different from the last time I did it, which was three years ago when my husband directed me in our own theatre at The Red Barn in North Carolina. I did it at the Geffen in 1999, and then in TV in 2001. Each time you do a role, the trap is to repeat something, and that can be deathly — to do a revival of your own work. 'Oh, I remember I walked a certain way, and I wore a red dress.' Well, that's not how I walk now or that's not what I look good in so let me be who I am now. Let me be a perception. And, when Lynne Meadow directs a play, she's going to bring her vision to it. Some of it is going to suit me, and some of it is not — that's where the dialogue begins.
"What I care about is that connection with the audience, that you know how I feel right now, that you take my energy and let it wash all over you and let it tell you something about me — and yourself. That's what my work is about, about doing with all that I know about myself now. Hopefully, it's a more enlightened position than it was ten years ago and it's a more understanding, compassionate play.
"I love this character. I love playing her. I have a lot of fun playing her, even in her most painful, outrageous moments, even in that last scene which is such a torturous argument about dignity, self-preservation and self-esteem. I feel very close to her."
Brina Kohn was asked what was her favorite Linda Lavin performance, and, without hesitation, she squealed back, "Me!" She, you see, is the allergist's wife who prompted Charles Busch to write one of Lavin and Meadow's biggest hits, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. At the opening-night party, Busch recalled how hard it was to get Lavin aboard. "She was being very capricious and wouldn't commit," he said. "I didn't really know her, but I was determined that she had to play that part so I just stalked her. I'd pop up at Joe Allen's. I'd pop up at Angus'. And, when I heard she was going to be in L.A. doing Collected Stories at the Geffen, I flew to L.A. I had lunch with her there and finally broke her down. Thank God, she did it." In Paulson's camp, as you might have predicted, was old pal Cherry Jones, but she said she was genuinely won over by the earnestness of Paulson's performance: "I buy her completely. I believe her at the end." And that you can count as praise from Calpurnia since Jones won a Tony for setting the standards for ambiguous motives as the inordinately vengeful nun of Doubt. "It's very much like Doubt, this play," the actress contended. "I have seen it five times, and each time I decide at the end. The first few times I certainly agreed that Sarah should have at least asked permission — but I find her argument has grown so that now I actually find myself siding with Lisa Morrison. I actually believe that she did genuinely want to honor Ruth and that she followed her teacher's instructions very well. That's my thought — but I can't tell Linda!"
Jones has sworn off the nun habit, once the current Exhibit A ("Mother and Child") fades from feature screens. "That's my final nun. That's my final, final nun. No more nuns. I had to do a sweet nun before I ended my career as a nun. That's over."
And her term as the President of the United States comes to an end May 24 with the concluding installment of her "24" series so "now I've just got to come back and earn an honest living again and get on stage. I'm hoping to, in the fall. It's almost set."
David Rasche, returning to the Friedman for the first time since it became the Friedman (with 2008's To Be Or Not To Be), has a series called "Rubicon" coming out on "the 'Mad Men' network," AMC, in August. "I play a mogul," said Rasche, who has always looked rich. "There's a little bit of 'Lost' in it because you don't exactly know what's going on, but it's very pulling to know that you're going to find out something and you just don't know what. The pieces get put together gradually — it's very enticing that way. Miranda Richardson plays the wife of my best friend, another mogul, and we live in our mogul homes."
Johnny Cash, Elvis and Shakespeare were all in the audience on opening night — or at least the actors impersonating them about town: Lance Guest and Eddie Clendening of Million Dollar Quartet and John Pankow of MTC's now-closed Equivocation. It seems Quartet has the rare Wednesday off, and the cast spends it devouring good theatre. Elvis and Johnny were joined by fellow cast members Elizabeth Stanley and Hunter Foster and his wife, both formerly of Urinetown. Mrs. Foster is Jennifer Cody, a.k.a. "Little Sally," the blunt waif who blasts Broadway in the BC/EFA extravaganzas. She skipped this year's for the first time and, drained of her venom, served as an actual judge for its Easter Bonnet Competition. Among the recent London returnees in the house: Ruthie Henshall, who's back in Chicago as Roxie Hart through June 13; Jason Butler Harner, fresh from four months' work on the London stage and ready to pounce here; Doubt Tony winner Adriane Lenox, who had to loll around London (where she saw her daughter, Crystal Joy, debut in Hair) nine extra days because of Iceland's volcanic ash.
Reporter Marie Brenner and Alfred Uhry, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Driving Miss Daisy, were at the theatre but not together especially. The Friedman may be the scene of their future "crime": he is adapting her moving memoir, "Apples & Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found," for MTC.
Others included Sam Coppola; designers deluxe Willa Kim and William Ivey Long; Sandra Bernhard; Billy Stritch (who has a May 3 Birdland gig "at 7"); Cady Huffman; Kate Mulgrew; Marian Seldes; Rodgers and Hammerstein honcho Ted Chapin; Noah Racey, who just finished choreographing Annie Get Your Gun up at Goodspeed; Birdland's Jim Caruso; Jayne Houdyshell; playwright Terrence McNally; Jaskia Nicole; Broadway's favorite mother-daughter duo, Jill Clayburgh and Lily Rabe (who'll be Head to Head with Al Pacino at The Delacorte this summer in The Merchant of Venice); Matt Walton; Michael Tucker; Pedro Pascal from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"; Frances Sternhagen; Mary Lynn Rajskub of "24," and Stephanie J. Block.