Collected Stories: a conversation-based play that works

She's what's politely called a curmudgeon, but more commonly called a bitch. Ruth Steiner is a short-tempered, arrogant, bossy woman "of a certain age," a celebrated writer of stories who's been slumming as a literature professor for a little while. One of her students, Lisa, shows some promise, and Ruth hires her to work as Ruth's assistant in her New York apartment.

Although she's a fictional character, it turns out that Ruth enjoyed a romantic affair of sorts with the very real Del­more Schwartz sometime before we meet her in Donald Margulies' cunning Collected Stories, now playing at Theatre Artists Studio. And, thanks to Patti Davis Suarez's interpretation of her, Ruth also turns out to be neither curmudgeon nor bitch nor any other archetype, but rather a rich, vibrant, genuine person I found myself wishing were real, so I could take her to lunch.

Collected Stories is a talky play, with only one brief location shift. I love a play in which two people sit around gabbing, and when I find one that's as smart and as lovingly performed as this one, I feel as if I'm not only enjoying a worthwhile evening of theater, but am eavesdropping on a really splendid conversation. Margulies' dialogue for these two women sparkles; I never found it wordy or pretentious. If Ruth's speech about her affair with Schwartz sounds like a monologue, that's deliberate; Margulies and director Judy Rollings, who knows a thing or two about monologues, wants us to understand that Ruth has been imagining this particular love story, in her own wordy, writerly way, for decades. It's a secret conveyed in the touching, hopeful way Suarez reads this speech, her eyes filling with tears even as she smiles wistfully at the memory of this ruined man she thinks she once loved.

As Lisa, Amanda Melby begins her performance breathlessly and winds it up with grace and dignity; hers is a strikingly accurate portrayal of this woman's journey from callow youth to sophisticated young adulthood. Rollings directs with a sure hand and an ease that shows she knows something about the concept of friends as family, and about the ways in which women move and talk and take up space in a room.

Collected Stories overflows with subtext — about loyalty; the relationship between fathers and daughters; aging and ageism — and I love that Margulies has written about how "writing can't be taught," a vainglorious belief I also hold and like to think is true. But I found it easy to forget to look for the deeper meaning in the playwright's story, because meeting the women who were telling it was itself such a satisfying experience.