The Apprentice Strikes Back

A fascinating play about a writer and her biggest fan — and worst betrayer?

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It's surprising that the mentor/protégée relationship hasn't been investigated more often in modern theater. After all, the subject is fraught with dramatic potential. There's the jealousy angle: Does the older party really want the younger to succeed, or is the possibility personally threatening? There's the family angle: When the mentor begins to resemble a parent, will old antagonisms awaken and threaten the connection?

Loyalty and disloyalty, aggression and submission, egoism and altruism — all are involved when one human being accepts another as apprentice and offers to bring the less experienced person to professional maturity. But while we have quite a few plays about teachers/students (The Browning Version, The Lesson, Oleanna, Educating Rita, etc. etc.) there's almost nothing (other than Applause, the Broadway musical adaptation of All About Eve) about mentors/protégées. It's as if that particular pairing ceased to exist in contemporary society.

Donald Margulies knows better. His fine play Collected Stories is about a novelist, Ruth Steiner, who accepts an aspiring young writer, Lisa Morrison, as her charge. In the six scenes that make up the drama, we watch Lisa change from a clumsy, self-doubting sycophant to a successful, self-asserting literary phenomenon.

At the same time, we see Ruth change from a haughty, triumphantly bad-mannered celebrity to a sickly near-fossil who may or may not have been cruelly exploited by her apprentice. But this major transformation is only part of the story: What's really on Margulies' mind are the scores of little changes that signal Lisa's strengthening and Ruth's eventual fadeout.

For example, when we first see Lisa in Ruth's apartment, the young woman is star-struck, awkward, having, she says, a "religious experience." She pleads for the job of Ruth's assistant as if nothing could be more heavenly than tidying a famous writer's desk and taking out her garbage. But a couple of scenes later, Lisa is comfortable enough to tell the older woman that she finds some of her opinions irritating. And a scene later, the apprentice is pointing out what she sees as flaws in her mentor's latest short story. By the time the play ends, Lisa has either absorbed all of Ruth's teachings, just as Ruth intended, or — equally possible — has robbed the mentor of her dearest treasure. Perhaps she's done both.

Leading us to ponder this and other ambiguities are actresses Katherine Michelle Tanner and Mimi Rice. As Lisa, Tanner could hardly be better. At the start of the play, she's so dazzled by Ruth that some harsh words from the latter reduce her to tears. As Lisa becomes more successful and more comfortable with Ruth, Tanner doesn't entirely jettison her character's tentativeness, but instead mixes it with an occasional boldness, and a certain stealth and dishonesty.

Tanner shows all these colors and more in a scene where we discover that Lisa is about to be published by Grand Street Magazine. Ruth is surprised: Hadn't she and Lisa agreed that Lisa wouldn't submit the short story there? And in any case, why did Lisa wait until now to tell her of the story's acceptance? Fending off all these queries, Tanner's Lisa is apologetic, flustered, joyful, self-contradicting, and quick to change the subject.

As a result, we're as confused as Ruth as to whether Lisa has now shown herself to be rebellious and cunning — or just as likely — mentally haphazard. This is splendid acting, as hard to pin down as life itself.

Mimi Rice as Ruth Steiner is often just as affecting, but there are problems in her performance that keep us from fully giving ourselves over to her character. Rice is a talented actress who played this same role brilliantly a few years ago in an Eckerd College production. But in the present staging, which I saw a couple of days after the opening, Rice seemed uncertain of some of her lines, gave strange emphases to certain words and phrases, and alternated moments of real mastery with awkward pauses and repetitions.

I'm told that one of the season's hurricanes interfered with rehearsals, and that may explain why this capable actress didn't quite manage to inhabit her role when I saw the play. But whatever the reason, Rice was erratic that afternoon: superb at some moments, uncertain at others. Knowing her professionalism, I have no doubt this will change after a few more performances.

Nothing needs changing in Anna Brennen's direction, though. She excels at realistic drama, and her staging of Collected Stories shows a respect for human truth that never leaves us doubting a gesture or emotion. Brennen is helped mightily by set designer R. T. Williams; his living room of a Greenwich Village apartment is as attractive as anything that's ever graced the Shimberg Playhouse. (I did wonder why there weren't more books on stage, though; most writers I know have books and magazines everywhere there's a flat surface.)

Robin New's costumes are always appropriate — especially meaningful is the uncharacteristically sexy dress Lisa wears for her first public reading — and Karla Hartley's lighting is just right from first to last. As a longtime Joni Mitchell fan, I also have to recognize the uncredited sound design, notably including "The Circle Game" and "People's Parties."

So is Collected Stories an important play? Well, of secondary importance, anyway. It's literate (how many plays mention poet Delmore Schwartz, or George Eliot's Middlemarch?), intelligent, original and efficient. If it has no great truths to impart, still it offers several little truths about the mentor/apprentice partnership, and about the morality of writers.

What it lacks in epiphanies, it makes up in solid observations, and if it has no real climax, still it takes us on a complete journey. I can recommend it to anyone, but if you're involved in the arts — literary or otherwise — you definitely shouldn't miss it. The issues the play raises are all alive, here and now.

A play about writers? A playwright's supposed to know better.

Fortunately, Margulies doesn't. And the result is the fascinating, satisfying Collected Stories.

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