Early in Donald Margulies's Collected Stories, the acclaimed and crotchety short-story writer played by Linda Lavin asks her eager, obsequious fiction-writing student (Sarah Paulson) why she ends every declarative sentence with a question mark. "I'm not absolutely certain, but I think more young women speak this way than young men. And there's something almost poignant about it, all these capable young women somehow begging to be heard, begging to be understood. 'Can you hear me?' 'Are you with me?' 'Am I being heard?'" She's an exacting teacher making the ultimate demand of her student: The young woman needs not only to find her voice, but to make sure it's a declarative one.
By the play's end, her voice is declarative all right; in fact, it's so big you can't miss it. Collected Stories digs into some complex and mildly intriguing ideas: Is a writer entitled to ownership of his or her experiences, or is it okay for another writer to appropriate them? And although Margulies wrote the play in 1996 (it was a Pulitzer finalist in 1997), many young people—particularly women—are still putting that questionable question mark at the end of all their sentences. But the real value of Collected Stories lies in the challenge it presents its two terrific actors, who spend the play parrying and sparring and cuffing each other, first with mother-and-cub affection and later with venomous resentment. Both Lavin and Paulson—under the direction of Lynne Meadow—give their all to the contest, and by the play's end, you can see what it costs them. Lavin plays this grand-dame writer as a down-to-earth diva. She may be sharply critical of her young disciple, but she's not inhumane. And in a confessional and vulnerable moment, when she shares the details of a youthful affair, her demeanor suddenly turns charmingly, disarmingly girlish.
Paulson is the real terror here: Her performance is brittle and precise, which is what makes it so effective. Collected Stories is essentially a high-toned All About Eve, although Paulson's character is both less overtly devious and more horrifying than the infamous Eve Harrington. When we first meet her, she's a perky but insecure prepster in a cotton dress. Eventually she'll become a highly polished and ambitious performer who relishes addressing an adoring 92nd Street Y audience in a sleek black dress—not simply a writer, but something far more dreadful to behold: a literary figure.