Little wonder that, for the third time since 1997, a New York theater has turned to "Collected Stories." Donald Margulies' drama delivers an engrossing, if somewhat schematic, couple of hours with just a single set and two actors.
What sets this play apart from dozens of others with identical descriptions, however, is that the characters are interesting, intelligent women, for a change, and one - a famous New York Jewish writer named Ruth Steiner - is the rare worthy vehicle for a splendid older actress.
And so it is with the showcase Lynne Meadow has lovingly staged for Linda Lavin (following "Time Stands Still" as Manhattan Theatre Club's two-play Margulies festival on Broadway). Unlike Maria Tucci and Uta Hagen, the basically stoical Ruths of 1997 and 1998, Lavin luxuriates more in Ruth's Jewish comfort zone. With her expansive, buzzy voice and almost comical shrewdness, she starts with the deadpan timing of a crusty stereotype, then twists it, tight and deep, into a dark place when closely guarded trust is betrayed.
Sarah Paulson has a delicate neediness that grows into big-time sophistication as Lisa, the privileged, damaged suburban beauty who walks into Ruth's lived-in Greenwich Village apartment (finely observed by designer Santo Loquasto) for a tutorial. In six scenes over six years, we watch the master-slave relationship change to what we believe is genuine friendship. Lisa grows into her skin; Ruth shares private memories of her youthful, bohemian love affair with poet Delmore Schwartz in the '50s.
The plot is still the plot. We know the moment Lisa walks awkwardly into Ruth's life that power will shift with the inevitable lessons about the fallibility of expertise, the jealousies of newcomers, the merciless life cycle. Lisa wears summer dresses. Ruth bundles into sweaters. Lisa crosses the moral boundaries of creativity into what Ruth perceives as "theft" - a crisis Margulies says he lifted from the publishing scandal about David Leavitt appropriating Stephen Spender's memoirs for his novel.
Lavin makes us viscerally involved in the crumbling of Ruth's protective distance. And, although Lisa may only be using the lessons Ruth taught her, Lavin makes the betrayal more ugly than just a literary dust-up. It feels like a mortal blow.
WHAT "Collected Stories"
WHERE Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., Manhattan
INFO$57-$97; 212-239-6200; manhattantheatreclub.com
BOTTOM LINE Predictable but engrossing drama, strong Linda Lavin vehicle