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Collected Stories wants to be a literary All About Eve, that classic 1950 movie about youth devouring age in show business. Eve, though, was hard-boiled, nasty fun—crystallized in Bette Davis’ famous line “Fasten your seat belts—it’s going to be a bumpy night.” Collected Stories, by contrast, has so little turbulence that you might call for a pillow and blanket. Set in the early ’90s, the play opens in the Greenwich Village apartment of Ruth (Halo Wines), a renowned, tetchy fiction writer and teacher whose decor (designed by James Kronzer) hasn’t changed since she moved in, 31 years earlier. (She still doesn’t have an answering machine to take the calls that constantly ring on her rotary phone.) “Don’t flinch—just do it” goes Ruth’s ruthless philosophy of telling unpleasant stories. Into this setting walks her student Lisa (Carolyn Pasquantonio), wearing a cotton print dress and cardigan so plain they should have “ingenue” stenciled on them. The two have an appointment to discuss Lisa’s latest story; but Lisa’s read everything Ruth’s ever published, and she’s not going to leave without sponging up the secrets of success. “What a privilege it is to be breathing the same air space as you!” Lisa enthuses. Flattery will get you everywhere with writers, and within 15 minutes, Lisa has the inside track to becoming Ruth’s personal assistant. And she quickly parlays the thankless position into mentorship and then a rivalrous friendship, which blows up when she bases her first novel on Ruth’s sacred memories of an affair with famed poet Delmore Schwartz. So Collected Stories could have explored some spiky themes: the symbiosis of old and young, the sadomasochism between teacher and student, the ways writers resemble vampires. But the play, featured earlier this year on PBS, feels like one of that network’s American Playhouse productions, middlebrow tragedies that end in despair instead of insight. Donald Margulies strings cliches in his script like rock candy. (“Why do I feel so awful?” Lisa asks after her collected stories get rave reviews. “There’s nothing worse than getting what you want,” pronounces Ruth.) Ruth also turns out to be a sententious gasbag about the writing life, spouting such hot air as “What is art but an exaggeration of the truth?” as if she’s practicing for her Paris Review interview. The characters cleave to Hollywood stereotypes of writers. And of women—Ruth actually says that her short affair with Schwartz was the “shining moment” of her life. Margulies also has Lisa come back to Ruth’s apartment to celebrate after a reading of the new novel, which she never told Ruth she was writing—for two-and-a-half years. Is Lisa really Ruth’s monstrous creation, or was she always a skunk? The character is so underdeveloped—and her writing so pedestrian—that you’ll have ceased to care when their ultimate confrontation finally limps in. The performances of Wines and Pasquantonio don’t clarify matters. Wines, who looks like Mary McCarthy (about whom a tell-all book with a similar premise was published last year), is more a matron than a live-by-her-wits sharpie; she also doesn’t show us the crack in Ruth that allows Pasquantonio’s mousey Lisa in. Neither has the fire necessary to make sparks with us or each other. Director Jim Petosa also stretches this already tenuous play, which garnered four Helen Hayes nominations two years ago in an Olney production at Theater J, to 160 minutes by frequently hanging pregnant pauses between the actors, as if profundity were blossoming in the silence. It isn’t. —Robert Lalasz