Tale of Betrayal

JCC's two-woman play receives a well-deserved ovation.

Collected Stories Halle Theatre, Mayfield Jewish Community Center, 3505 Mayfield Road, Cleveland Heights through April 2. 216-382-4000
Master and student: Silver and Zajko, equally sterling in their roles.
Master and student: Silver and Zajko, equally sterling in their roles.
Periodically, this critic has been taken to task for shameless fawning over Dorothy Silver. Judging from the ovation she received for her portrayal of Ruth Steiner in Collected Stories, I am not alone in my admiration for the actress.

Her specialties include the ability to light a flame in the most trivial of theatrical kindling. With an acerbic wit and queenly pragmatism -- which masks a childlike vulnerability -- Silver brings an Old Testament veracity to everything from dried-up spinsters to manipulative monsters.

In Collected Stories, staged at the Jewish Community Center's Halle Theatre, Silver has a vehicle perfectly fashioned to show off her best attributes. Steiner is a paradoxical character: in one aspect, a warm and nurturing mentor and talented writer; in another, an imperious nitpicker who will cut someone to pieces for serving her the wrong kind of cottage cheese. Her ice-cold tirades and tearful confessions give Silver an opportunity to display the range of an opera diva.

Silver's talents often obliterate weaker performances, but Betsy Zajko as Lisa Morrison -- Ruth's student, who evolves in the course of the play from insecure waif to usurping betrayer -- is never overwhelmed.

Playwright Donald Margulies, who teaches at the Yale School of Drama, likes to examine the classics and rewrite them from a skewed perspective. His plays work like Swiss watches, ticking to explosive climaxes. Each one has the clean trajectory found in a Greek tragedy.

Collected Stories is a tale about soul-snatching in soulless times. It takes its impetus from Joseph Mankowitz's 1950 film All About Eve, in which a vicious young actress rises to the top by usurping the identity of her mentor, a brilliant, aging star. Margulies pares the story down to two characters and moves it from the world of Broadway theater to that of publishing.

He sets the play like a steel trap. When the two women come together, we know the neophyte, in her rag-doll dresses and sherbet-colored tennis shoes, is too needy and unsure of herself to become a successful author all on her own. She depletes her own life history in the 12 short stories of her published collection. Then we see her surreptitiously reading her mentor's private correspondence. As she absorbs the older woman's Brooklyn Jewish background into her own writing, Lisa begins to take on the specter of a literary vampire.

In a scene of painful, naked honesty, Ruth breaks down and relates a bittersweet affair with the dissipated poet/writer Delmore Schwartz. (Margulies cannily blends fact and fiction to give the play verisimilitude.) This is a moment when we instinctively know that treachery will quickly follow. A few scenes later, the now noted and stylish young writer is reading excerpts from her first novel to an adoring audience, and we rehear the first-person account of the same love affair.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this relentless examination of betrayal is that the young woman has no conception that she's done anything wrong. In the tradition of Truman Capote, she believes all lives are up for grabs, and that she has paid tribute and performed a service by exposing the innermost heartache and secret confidences of her teacher. We are shown how young talent can drift into moral blindness.

The trap springs in the climactic scene. Ruth is forlorn and wasted in a tattered bathrobe and pajamas, thrown into an almost second childhood by grief and rage, and Lisa looks rich, pampered, and baffled. The play ends with the understanding that these two women's paths will not converge again. We take home with us the haunting image of a tragic queen, sitting resignedly in her windowsill.

Reuben Silver's direction allows the play to find its own pace and energy. If any fault is to be found with this production, it is Tony Kovacic's set, which is too New York generic to be this writer's apartment of 30 years. And the tinkling jazz score is too jolly to underscore the play's darkness.

Sexually Explicit Material -- the latest Cleveland Public Theatre offering, compiled and directed by Christopher Johnston -- isn't!

This work, which has the uncomfortable ambiance of a high school sex education class, manages to be simultaneously smutty and dull. Despite an excellent cast, the only thing hot about this multimedia collage was the stifling air in the overheated theater. Johnston's modus operandi was to gather numerous interviews about all aspects of sexuality (except he somehow managed to miss the interesting ones). The play lacks shaping and directorial coherence. It is also boringly repetitive (if that is possible with sex). This may be the best argument in favor of virginity since the inception of the Catholic Church.

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