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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

creative writing.

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

to live.

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

Fiction, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,

609-258-2787. To April 13. $40 to $4

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