When a veteran writing teacher warns her promising protégée that “You can’t censor your creative impulses because of the danger of hurting someone’s feelings,” it’s advice that will come back to bite her — and therein lies the main (though not the only) narrative boomerang in Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories” at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre.
Margulies’ tightly constructed 1996 two-hander explores collisions of art, ethics and privacy rights when Ruth (Susan Clark), a literary lioness who came of age in the New York of the early 1960s, grudgingly undertakes the tutelage of aspiring writer Lisa (Meghan Andrews).
Over the course of the mentorship, they wage a generational proxy war contrasting the fiercely uncompromising intellectual traditions of the past against a prophetic foreshadowing of the lazy modern narcissistic celebrity artist. Margulies’ penchant for cultural references and name-dropping — both highbrow and lowbrow — plays with assured conviction in James O’Neil’s insightful staging.
For all its cerebral heft, however, “Collected Stories” is first and foremost a play about relationship and the shifting power dynamics between these two women. In this regard, the production takes some time finding its emotional footing. Beneath Lisa’s timid subservience, there’s room for Andrews to hint at the calculation and manipulation of a careerist whose ambitions outpace her talent.
Clark’s Ruth seems too polite at first — she could lace her early acerbic barbs with some of the prickliness that erupts full force in the riveting second act, with its revelation that Lisa’s new novel has exploited Ruth’s most cherished and closely held secret.
Margulies is too shrewd a dramatist to settle for clear-cut villains and victims, however, and the performers ultimately realize this complexity in a richly-shaded confrontation with conflicted logic of head and heart.
“Collected Stories,” Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 22. $25-$49. (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.