Steven Dietz is facile in a good way. His play, “Fiction,” performed with style by West Windsor’s Pegasus Theater through Sunday, April 14, works on several planes at once. It touches on the domestic, academic, and the literary while also being a romance and mystery.
Rather than a hodgepodge that can’t seem to make up its mind, “Fiction” deftly moves from one mode to the other, commenting about relationships, survival, writing, writers, and what constitutes a good story.
By broaching the topic of stories, particularly in terms of where they come from and to whom they belong, Dietz intelligently weaves his own yarn. It is one that works smoothly because he keeps the focus on people, on the characters we see, and lets his bigger picture revolve around them instead of making them cogs that serve a conceit, theme, or plot device.
And while Dietz explores storytelling and how it’s achieved, he and Pegasus director Peter Bisgaier are too shrewd to let you see that.
“Fiction” has much to do with the act of writing. You see and hear much about writers’ habits, stalling to pathological procrastination, wondering where a story is coming from let alone where it’s going, and ingesting coffee and more potent libations among them.
Two of the play’s characters are writers, a married couple who meet in Paris when the man spies the woman reading at a cafe table and makes obnoxious small talk until she warms up to him. He is the prolific one who rails against the exact type of writer he eventually becomes. She is the one who has written a book that’s become a modern classic expected to be known by anyone on a college level, especially budding writers, and a staple on syllabi at the time.
The third character is the latest generation of a family that owns a writers’ colony where both the husband and wife, at different times, take refuge to force their muse or at least feel beholden to produce something. The woman’s novel emerges in this setting. The man has to get over an aversion to being in a place where the local bar serves beer in green bottles, which he considers an anathema.
Bisgaier and a cast of sincere, realistic, engaging actors keep you listening and following the characters’ basic lives and interactions while skillfully creating an ending that comes as a surprise.
Their method is to talk directly to each other in natural, conversational tones and to us, the audience, in confiding, explanatory ways.
The individuality each actor provides his or her character adds to the triangular roundelay Dietz appears to be getting at while leading to a logical, visible, but unanticipated conclusion.
David C. Neal, as the literary snob who shrugs off some principles to become as popular with filmmakers as he is with publishers, brings winsome irony to his part. His Michael always has a bon mot or a joke to leaven, or avoid, situations, and Neal casts these off jovially and consistently with Michael’s preference to evade dealing with the real or difficult, professionally and in his personal life.
Jennifer Nasta Zefutie’s Linda is also self-effacing, acknowledging to her writing students that she is a one-hit wonder who can teach them nothing but will provide criticism and help them find any voice that might emerge.
To Michael, humor is a dodge. To Linda, it’s a way to take off the edge and express things that might get too intense without some witty or ironic remark to soften them.
Each character also has to cope with serious matters that transcend humor. Linda has a terminal illness, something Dietz uses to bring his mystery to the fore.
By finding how their characters are funny as a defense, Neal and Zefutie add depth and interest to characters that could too easily be portrayed at a surface level.
With the married couple masking feelings and circumstances via humor, Dietz introduces a third character who figures with some proportion in each of the writers’ lives. And though she may laugh the loudest and comment the sharpest, she does most of it internally while keeping her face and aspect noncommittal and any barbed words well timed for full effect.
Sarah Stryker plays this character beautifully. Her Abby is always calm, unruffled, unrufflable, and superior in aspect. Stryker’s Abby, housing and listening to writers for a lifetime, has seen and heard everything imaginable. Not much impresses or amuses her. The actress and character provides needed and welcome contrast to the couple that gets through a lot by making fun of it.
It takes time to see the role Abby plays in Michael and Linda’s individual lives, but the clues are there, and it’s Stryker who both reveals most while keeping the revelation from being obvious or even noticeable as part of a larger story.
A scene between Stryker and Zefutie in the writers’ kitchen is particularly stirring because the actresses know how to balance their characters’ feeling about each other in a way that combines relaxed familiarity with almost unbearable intensity.
“Fiction” is a perfect title because it allows Dietz to cover so much under its mantle. Each character preserves a fiction of sorts while seeming to be so open. Fiction as a genre comes under some scrutiny. Is fiction all invention, or is it enhanced when biography or other true matters are infused into it? Are personal fictions harmful? Is it preferable for a story to be real or believable, and what are the consequences if the real becomes uncomfortable?
It’s gratifying to have so much to consider while watching actors who make you concentrate on the conversational moment between them and keep the more probing question in your mind while you focus on them.
Katie Truk’s set is spare but versatile. With nothing but a table, it can evoke a Parisian cafe. With nothing but a roll-top desk, it suggests a writer’s study. Robert Rutt’s lighting adds to tone. Chrissy Johnson’s outfits look like clothes the characters would choose and not like costumes.
Fiction, Pegasus Theater, West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road, Princeton Junction. Through Sunday, April 14. Thursday, 1 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., and Sunday, 2 p.m. $28. 609-759-0045 or www.pegasustheatrenj.org