COLLECTED STORIES, Attic Playhouse. Writer, teacher, and surly broad Ruth Steiner (Kathleen Ruhl) takes a gifted graduate student (Ann Marie Heiman) under her wing, guiding her development from a chirpy, frantic child into an articulate woman with a literary voice. As adviser, friend, and mother figure, Steiner shares her wisdom and life stories, providing inspiration and fodder for her protege’s writing. When the young woman’s star rises and her mentor’s falls, their conflicts transcend relationship dynamics and issues of betrayal: this story taps into the life forces that dictate the passing of certain torches, whether or not the bearer is ready to let go.

The primary action in Donald Margulies’s play is conversation–the two actresses, onstage more or less continuously, must hold our attention using only emotional honesty and intellect. Ruhl and Heiman are up to the challenge, understanding their characters well enough to master both their extensive verbal exchanges and the more compelling dialogue between the lines. Their instinctive connection fuels this production–actors less in sync might have gotten buried under the piles and piles of words. But Margulies’s sometimes windy diatribes are worth hearing, particularly for aspiring literati who might benefit from the solid advice and opinions on writing he imparts through his characters. (My favorites: “Gossip is the new literature” and “Life’s too short for the New Yorker.”) This witty, cerebral, voyeuristic encounter should fascinate most students of human behavior–whether they intend to write about it or not.

–Kim Wilson