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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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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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