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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the March 26, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

The Facts of a `Fiction’

I think we all agree that there can be many reasons

for keeping a diary. At the most basic level, a diary is primarily

and traditionally a daily record of the way of one’s life as perceived

by the writer; made notable by the expressing of inner, sometimes

extremely intimate, thoughts that validate the writing. It has been

described by some as an act of mental cleansing. Virginia Woolf said,

"I think diary writing has helped my (writing) style; loosened

my ligatures." A few years later the less erudite but certainly

practical Mae West said, "Keep a diary and one day it will keep

you."

Playwright Steven Dietz, whose play "Fiction" uses diaries

as a catalyst for marital conflict, opens its world premiere production,

on Friday, March 28, at McCarter Theater. "I believe that the

minute we put anything down on paper, even if it’s fact, it becomes

fiction," says Dietz. And we both agree that the contents of a

diary are rarely — though sometimes — meant for the eyes of

others.

In "Fiction," a conflict arises when a married couple, Linda

and Michael, both writers who thrive on the give-and-take of their

unusually honest relationship, decide to share their diaries. Linda

is dying and when she tells Michael that she is going to leave her

diaries for him to read after her death, she asks Michael to give

her his diaries to read before she dies. The question that the play

proposes is whether coming clean at the end is the right route to

take.

I ask Dietz if Linda’s proposal is not a pre-ordained route to disaster.

"A dramatist is always looking for a pre-ordained route to disaster,"

he answers with a laugh. Dietz’s route to McCarter has included 24

previous plays, all of them produced, making him one of the most watched

regional playwrights. "Fiction" is his 25th play ("It’s

my silver jubilee," he quips).

Despite being one of the country’s most prolific, versatile, and widely

produced playwrights, Dietz has yet to make much of a splash in New

York. He was pleased, however, when I mentioned how moved and impressed

I was with "Lonely Planet," his metaphorical play that dealt

with friendship and fear in the age of AIDS. It received a nomination

for Best Play from the Outer Critics Circle when it was produced in

a limited run Off-Broadway in 1995.

Perhaps it was his subsequent romantic comedy "Private

Eyes" (with productions worldwide), using such elements as passion,

suspicion, secrecy, and deception, that paved the way for "Fiction,"

a more serious consideration of love and betrayal. A recipient of

a 2003 New American Play Production Grant from the Kennedy Center,

"Fiction" shows us what happens when boundaries begin to break

down and how the lives of this married couple are not, as they presumed,

an open book.

"I had the notion for a long time, perhaps a dozen years or so,

that the only thing harder than dying with a secret is living with

one," says Dietz. "This was to be the first time that I invented

characters who were writers."

McCarter’s literary director Liz Engelman initiated the writing of

"Fiction," when, as a co-conceiver of a festival of new plays

at Fringe Act at ACT in Seattle, she asked Dietz if he had any new

play to submit for consideration. He remembers saying to her, "No,

I have nothing." She was not only persistent, but also harangued

Dietz enough to make him sit down and start writing.

"I’m a completion freak, so I finished the first draft in about

2-1/2 weeks," says Dietz, who admits that the notion of whom and

how we deceive and the results of the deception are just a gold mine

for drama. "What I didn’t know was what the secret was and how

the third character, a woman named Abby, played into the lives of

Linda and Michael," he adds.

Unable to come up with an ending, and only days before the play was

scheduled to have its first public reading, Dietz sought out help

where most husbands go when push comes to shove. It was Allison Gregory,

Dietz’ wife, who is also a playwright, to whom he gives credit for

helping him to navigate through the play’s final surprises. McCarter

Theater picked up the play for production right after the reading,

with Engelman acting as dramaturg.

What is it about the damaging effects of betrayal that fascinates

Dietz?

"I’m glad my life isn’t as interesting as the lives of my characters,"

he says, freely admitting that his agent, upon reading the play, felt

compelled to ask him if he would be able to show it to his wife. While

Dietz allows that the play couldn’t be further from his own relationship

with his wife, the fact is, he says, "that people will find you

in the play whether you are in there or not."

What the audience will be tracking in this play, explains Dietz, is

whether the events in the diaries really happened and how fact and

fiction can easily become blurred. "The big shock for me,"

says Dietz, "after re-imagining what I had written down in some

of my old diaries was to discover how awful and boring they are now."

One of the nicest discoveries for Dietz is the McCarter experience;

one that he says is special because a playwright, Emily Mann, is artistic

director. Afforded full cast, director, and design approval, Dietz

says he is pleased that Broadway stars Robert Cuccioli and Laila Robins

[a romantic item in real life, as well] are cast as husband and wife

Michael and Linda. Marianne Hagan, who is making her McCarter debut,

plays Abby, the other woman.

Cuccioli earned a Tony nomination for best actor in

a musical for his work in the title role of "Jekyll and Hyde"

and appeared last at the McCarter in Mark Lamos’ production of "The

School for Scandal." Laila Robins, who appeared on Broadway in

"The Herbal Bed," appeared at the McCarter in Sam Shepard’s

"Fool for Love." "Fiction" will be under the direction

of David Warren, who staged the Broadway revivals of "Holiday,"

"Summer and Smoke," and "Misalliance."

Dietz began his theater career as a director at the Playwrights Center

in Minneapolis, where he staged the early workshop productions of

plays by Lee Blessing and August Wilson. ("A great graduate school

— I lied my way in," he admits matter-of-factly). Dietz recalls

Wilson as a poet there who had just written his first play, "Ma

Rainey’s Black Bottom." Subsequently Dietz directed over 20 world

premieres in such theaters as the Old Globe in San Diego, Actors Theater

of Louisville, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Dietz doesn’t

deny that he certainly had an "in" to direct workshops of

his own growing canon of plays.

"It’s my writing, not my directing, that pays the bills these

days," says the 44-year-old Dietz, who prefers to be at home with

his wife and their 3-1/2 year old daughter Ruby. Born in Denver, Colorado,

"a career railroader’s kid," Dietz grew up there and graduated

in 1980 with a B.A. in theater from the University of Northern Colorado.

It was there that he wrote his first one-act play as his senior thesis.

"I kept on writing plays and discovered I could have a career

outside of New York. But this is a big deal for me having a play done

at McCarter. I’ve never had a play of mine world premiere on the East

Coast." As an example he talks about "Private Eyes," his

"most commercial play" so far, which had its premiere at the

Humana Festival in Louisville. Because the New York Times gave it

a kind of dismissive review it never received a New York production.

"Instead," Dietz proclaims with no false modesty, "it

was taken and done by about 35 regional theaters and it paid my bills

for about five years."

Not afraid to tackle adaptations, Dietz says his version of "Dracula"

has also been very popular. "I’ve inverted the theater adage:

I’ve made a living, but not a killing."

The jury is still out whether Dietz is going to make the elusive killing

with "Fiction." Or would there be another kind of killing

if he and his wife gave each other permission to read each other’s

diaries?

"I wouldn’t do that because if I shared a secret then I would

want to discover a secret. If I ever thought it was a good idea, I

got it out of my system by writing this play," he says. "However,

time has made me realize that if there ever was an intended audience

for my diaries when I’m gone, it is my daughter Ruby."

— Simon Saltzman

Fiction, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,

609-258-2787. Opening night for a world premiere play by Steven Dietz.

Cast features Robert Cuccioli, Laila Robins, and Marianne Hagan, directed

by David Warren. Performances to April 13. $40 to $47. Friday,

March 28, 8 p.m.


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