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Review: 4th Wall Theatre Company Tells COLLECTED STORIES

Review: 4th Wall Theatre Company Tells COLLECTED STORIES
at 4th Wall Theatre Company.
Photo credit: Gabriella Nissen

COLLECTED STORIES is the climax to 4th Wall Theatre Company's phoenix-like season which saw the company get saved by generous donors and excited patrons who wanted the troupe to continue. It's two women playing writers - one older and one younger. An ALL ABOUT EVE tale spins out, and the show has interesting dynamics to share about artists when they become close friends. It's a cautionary tale done with flair by this company who knows all about artistic struggles and compromises.

COLLECTED STORIES by Donald Margulies debuted back in 1996 and won a Pulitzer Prize the following year. Yet somehow the work didn't appear on Broadway until 2010, and this is to my knowledge the first time it is being produced in Houston. It is a fictional story about an aging celebrated writer named Ruth who lives alone in her New York City apartment where she has resided over thirty years. She coaches young aspiring artists in a college program, and this is how she meets Lisa who is an ambitious yet insecure student who wants to be a published author. We see all the action transpire over a six-year period from this vantage of Ruth's apartment. During this time Lisa blossoms as a writer, and yet steals many things from Ruth in order to become a huge success.

For this production, Ruth is played by one of 4th Wall's artistic directors Kim Tobin-Lehl. Interestingly enough Mrs. Tobin-Lehl teaches acting to students much like the character in the play coaches writing. Kim's performance is cranky, Jewish, and heartbreaking often in the same sentence. She captures something that is special, and that audiences will connect with. Regan Elizabeth plays the younger woman, and appropriately she is a debut artist with 4th Wall. She's perky, Protestant, and enigmatic often in the same sentence. Audiences will have a great time trying to figure her out throughout the play. Both actors create a wonderful tennis match of literary drives at each other, and we get the real sense of their relationship growing and imploding right in front of us. It's fascinating stuff, and they both establish a rich world of dreams and hopes that come into moral dilemmas.

The only issue I have with COLLECTED STORIES is that it runs a bit long at two and a half hours. You will see many twists coming, and at times it feels repetitive and far too in love with its own words - probably much like the authors we are observing. As wonderfully crafted as the performances are, there are times when you wish things might vary a bit from beat to beat. Director Jennifer Dean has managed to make it all sustain interest, but you'll feel the length in certain stretches. The payoff is well worth it though.

I was stunned by what Kevin Rigdon does with sets and lights in the Spring Street Studio space. I have seen TUTS and Alley shows with far less professional looking interiors, he's a magician. Ruth's apartment is two stories up crammed with books and art, and there is a very real window smack in the middle that looks out over Greenwich Village. This is amazing work that becomes the third character and perfect compliment to the duet happening onstage.

COLLECTED STORIES is one of those literary-minded plays that have great depth but also feels overly wordy at times. 4TH Wall has a solid pair of actresses who do go in and explore their characters in an exciting way that never feels strained or over the top. There's no hint of melodrama despite the ALL ABOUT EVE situations that could lend itself to such nonsense. No, we believe we are watching two authors reach the limits of their friendship, and that is impressive enough without the fireworks.

COLLECTED STORIES runs through June 8th at the Spring Street Studios. Tickets can be found online at 4THWALLTHEATRECO.COM.

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