In this intricately incised two-hander -- first presented Off-Broadway by MTC in 1997 -- acclaimed short story writer and graduate school professor Ruth Steiner (Linda Lavin) takes on sycophantic student Lisa Morrison (Sarah Paulson) as an assistant. As we watch them over the course of two acts, Ruth imparts everything valuable she knows about writing to the young woman.
In the process, the two also form a strong and unsurprisingly complicated surrogate mother-daughter relationship -- one that undergoes its severest test when, six years after their initial meeting, the now-successful Lisa writes a first novel based on a narrative she can't claim is drawn from her experience or prove it has been completely imagined.
But there's plenty to savor before the pair's final confrontation. Margulies' observation of Ruth's conflicted responses to Lisa's success at selling a first piece to a literary periodical is the occasion for one of those golden silences mentioned above. The second sort -- where ticket buyers magically become one pair of attentive ears -- occurs shortly thereafter when Lisa urges Ruth to talk about her long-ago affair with Delmore Schwartz, the noted real-life author who became more renowned for spiraling into drunken penury than his literary gifts.
The writing Margulies does in delineating the dalliance is endlessly perceptive, and what Lavin does delivering it is the stuff of superlative acting. Able for decades now to get laughs simply from the way she rolls her eyes or darts them sideways -- and doing a great deal of that here -- Lavin uses the Schwartz-affair sequence to shift from the hard-edged, suspicious, and worldly wise author Ruth has become to the wide-eyed, 22-year-old, wannabe poet she was when first succumbing to Schwartz's spell at Greenwich Village's now-famous White Horse Tavern.
With Meadow shrewdly encouraging her, Lavin rises to even greater heights after being asked by Lisa why she's never written about the episode. She replies, looking searingly into an imaginary long-gone distance, "Some things you don't touch." In the second act, when the now-ill Ruth is confronting Lisa for what she sees as an irreparable breach of trust, Lavin reaches an agonizing peak when she tells the younger woman: "This is my life, dammit."
Also profiting from Meadow's astute guidance, the tall, blonde Paulson charts Lisa's transformation from (possibly deceptive) innocent to polished young author with commendable subtlety. Like her co-star, Paulson has to climb to her own heights, and she does so with ease.
Collected Stories also gains verisimilitude from the ever-adept Jane Greenwood's costumes and the book-lined apartment Santo Loquasto has designed. (For some odd reason, though, those books are shelved so high that the ladder Loquasto places upstage is clearly too short to reach those stacked highest.) But it's the truth of the tale -- and the commitment of its actors -- that will linger in audiences' memories long after the curtain has come down.