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This article by was prepared for the April 2, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
At McCarter: `Fiction’
Words take on a life of their own in Steven Dietz’s
new drama, "Fiction." The work, which opened its world premiere
production at McCarter Theater on March 27, is an ingenious puzzle
of a play that keeps its audience guessing the fate of its literate
protagonists all the way to its own literary coda. The commission,
a good fit for the McCarter community, will resonate best with people
— or people who know people — whose lives revolve around publishing,
literary agents, book tours, and plum tenure-track appointments in
Directed by David Warren, the three-person drama centers on two published
writers, Michael (Robert Cuccioli) and Linda (Laila Robins), and their
separate residencies, early in their careers, at the prestigious Drake
Writers Colony. Here each "emerging" writer meets colony administrator
Abby Drake (Marianne Hagan), a literate young woman with an opaque,
Mona Lisa-like presence.
"Fiction" opens on a spirited argument at a cafe in Paris
by two Americans who seem to know each other well, locked in debate
about whether John Lennon or Janis Joplin has earned the right to
the "all-time greatest" status.
The next time we meet the couple, 20 years has passed and they are
a couple — a couple of professional writers whose routines are
suddenly disrupted by Linda’s terminal cancer. Now she and Michael
are wrestling to come to terms with the fact she has just three weeks
At this point in his life, Michael, once a Dante wannabe, is a successful,
mainstream writer. Although his greatest fear, once upon a time, was
of becoming a hack, he now describes his books as "pre-emptive
novelizations" of future movies. Yet in his opening night performance,
Cuccioli did not convince me that he had the flair for such a feat.
I found myself asking whether this man who had won a 30-day junket
at a bijou writers’ colony really was as shallow as he seemed or whether
the actor made him appear that way. For when Michael tells us, early
on, that his wife "means the world to me," neither his words
nor deeds support him.
Far more animated is Linda, a writer and college teacher who launched
her career with one powerful and successful novel, "At the Cape."
Far from a sentimentalist, we see her facing death with the same kind
of combative humor she brings to her marriage and her teaching. From
the play’s opening argument to its penultimate scene, shortly before
her death, Robins gives this role her all — acting as a sort of
foil for the low-key duo with whom she shares the stage. Curiously,
though, Linda shows more anguish after reading her husband’s diaries
than she does when confronted with her own impeding death.
Diaries — obsessive daily chronicles of lives-in-progress
— are at the heart of "Fiction." Both the play’s self-absorbed
authors have spent two decades keeping diaries, each in his own style.
Michael’s are written in dozens of perfectly matched marble notebooks
that he stores in chronological order in a weathered wooden ship’s
box with a laminated index inside the lid. Linda’s diaries, on the
other hand, have been written over the years in books of a dozen different
shapes and sizes that she keeps crammed together in an apple box.
The pivotal question is whether these diaries are works of fact, works
of fiction, or simply works of art.
The play’s ingenious construction, which involves constant and fluid
movement backward and forward through time, is its greatest strength.
And without resorting to the usual tricks of age wrinkles and added
pounds, this attribute is brought to the stage in an unlabored manner.
As we watch the characters journey across 20 years, we can accept
that what we are seeing is their essential or authentic selves, not
simply their outward physical trappings.
James Youmans has given the production an attractive and efficient
setting that nicely matches the movement in time and space. Spare
and economical, with page-like screens that slide back and forth,
it carries us comfortably between locations. Costumes by David Woolard
are similarly practical, with small touches to convert each character
from one time-frame to another.
This hyper-talky play in which the fictional writers insist on using
lots of long words both in speech and in their ponderous diaries also
offers a good measure of humor directed at writers and writers’ colonies,
lawyers, college teachers, and movie-makers. A bit like Michael’s
literary career, "Fiction" is not great theater, but probably
considerably better than curling up with one of his third-rate novels.
— Nicole Plett
609-258-2787. To April 13. $40 to $4
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