Truth Is More Lucrative Than Fiction

Collected Stories

Ruth and Lisa live in a hermetically sealed writers' universe, authentically reproduced here, in which their concerns revolve only around dreams of literary fame, readings at the 92nd Street Y, and reviews in Publishers Weekly. Margulies himself seems to live there, too. His best-known work, The Loman Family Picnic, is a bizarrely entertaining revision of Death of a Salesman. Sight Unseen, another play from the early '90s, is about a painter's relationship with his talent. In Collected Stories he has written snippets, which we hear read aloud, of Lisa's stories, brilliantly showing us both the awkwardness of her student writing and the developing voice that Ruth rightly wants to encourage.

In creating Ruth, Margulies has given us a mature woman seldom seen on theater stages -- a middle-aged writer who is self-assured, opinionated, smart, and a professional success. Margulies bows to cliché only by having her remain single and alone. Wouldn't a woman bold enough to attract Delmore Schwartz also attract other partners? Although the character is not without problems, Ruth is a marvelous part for an actress (Uta Hagen played it in New York; Helen Mirren is about to take it on in London). Caldwell audiences are lucky to be able to see Nesbit, who gives a searing and fascinating performance. Because Ruth isn't given to large gestures -- making tea for Lisa is about expansive as she gets -- Nesbit's brilliance lies in her small moments, her line readings, the precision of her physical inflections. As Ruth becomes ill, the actress nearly seems to fade away.

As Lisa, Kathy Tyrell is less compelling but only by degrees. If the changes her character goes through aren't entirely believable, it's because the playwright has made her something of an impetuous young plot device. (Debra Messing, now starring in TV's Will and Grace, played this part against Maria Tucci in the play's 1997 debut at the Manhattan Theatre Club.)

Ruth and Lisa: friends today, competitors tomorrow
Ruth and Lisa: friends today, competitors tomorrow

Details

Written by Donald Margulies. Directed by Michael Hall. Starring Pat Nesbit and Kathy Tyrell. Through August 15.
Caldwell Theatre Company, 7873 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton, 561-241-7432.

The production, helmed by Caldwell artistic director Michael Hall, has only one wrong note. Oddly, it's the wardrobe. Ruth looks suitably academic in her long skirts and colorless tops, but Lisa, dressed in baggy pants and schmata-like tops is far from the image of a creative-writing student. Hasn't she heard of artistic black? At any rate, she needs quick help. I hear Tama Janowitz's latest novel is a bust. Maybe she's available as a wardrobe consultant.

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