Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

"World Premiere" Play at McCarter

Fiction, the new play by Steven Dietz, is undeniably filled with wise and witty dialogue which in and of itself makes for enjoyable, worthwhile viewing. Still, in the final analysis, it falls short of being a cohesive, satisfying, successful play in its "world premiere production" at Princeton's McCarter Theatre (the play was commissioned and previously produced 'in a workshop setting' by Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre).

Robert Cuccioli and Laila Robins
Here's act one —novelists Michael and Linda (Robert Cuccioli and Laila Robins) have been more or less happily married for about twenty years. However, Linda has recently been diagnosed as having a malignant brain tumor which will kill her in a matter of weeks. She tells Michael that she wants to read his personal diaries before she dies (as he will surely read hers after her death). In the diaries, Linda comes across Michael's description of his more than decade old sexual dalliance with Abby (Marianne Hagan), a staff person whom he met at a writer's retreat. We are enabled to observe the details of this affair through Linda's eyes as she reads the diary because she knows Michael so well that "a phrase gives enough [for her] to conjure an entire day."

There is a prologue involving Michael and Linda during which the dialogue bristles with bons mots and witty ripostes (Where did the afternoon go?" "Nowhere, nowhere at all."). It appears clear that it portrays the feuding of a couple long familiar with each other (Linda even berates Michael for "always" speaking in a particular manner). However, immediately upon conclusion of this prologue, we learn that it depicts the first meeting of Michael and Linda about 20 years earlier. Thus, our underpinnings are removed from us for the first of what are to be too many occasions throughout the course of the play. As the second act begins, Linda tells Michael that she had been able to forgive him for one indiscretion, but cannot forgive his having continued his affair with Abby over the ensuing years. But, is it possible that the diaries are less fact than Fiction?

While the performances are smooth and naturalistic, director David Warren has chosen to present the play in a highly stylized fashion. As events hurtle back and forth in time, the actors never change in appearance or fashion. Although being in the throes of chemotherapy following brain surgery, Linda is presented as being as sharp, fresh and vibrant as when we met her 20 years earlier. A stylized approach is appropriate. This is a play of words and ideas. It is unlikely that mere mortals could talk with the swift brilliance of Dietz's characters. Thus, the artificiality of the characters is not in and of itself to be faulted. As Noel Coward has demonstrated repeatedly, an evening with witty, brittle artificial characters can be quite bracing. However, the play's melodramatic situation and the naturalistic performances raise expectations of emotional involvement which cannot be fulfilled by the very design of the work at hand.

Act two continues in its movement between "now" and the past, and even manages to better engage us in the events which it depicts. However, it is overloaded with too many swift reversals in the fortunes of its protagonists and "revelations" which do not play as being as momentous as Dietz would have them. While all this merits more detailed analysis, it would be unfair to the play and its potential audience to reveal plot details that such an analysis would require.

It can be said that in Fiction's present form, much of Michael's behavior towards the fatally stricken Linda is almost unspeakably cruel, and this does not appear to be playwright Dietz's intention. A particularly cruel, artificial and, dare I say, ridiculous moment occurs when Michael, earlier having torn one page from his diaries in Linda's presence, is confronted by Linda as to its contents. Michael removes the crumpled page from his pants pocket, shows Linda that it is blank, and gets her to concur in his assessment that she had imagined that its content would be worse than anything that she had already read. He then tells her that he wanted her to know that the worst never happened.

The main issue appears to be the necessity of maintaining some discrete secrecy in any relationship, but any such point is lost in the overly tricky second act. Dietz has stated that his original impulse in writing Fiction was "the notion that the only thing harder than dying with a secret would be living with one." This subject is introduced with one line in the second act, but it remains unexplored.

Laila Robins is exceptional as Linda. She delivers Dietz's diamond sharp dialogue in all its force with verve and is able to convey a centered ease that makes her brittle character likeable and sympathetic despite the coldness in the writing. Robert Cuccioli portrays Michael with appropriate ease. Neither the text nor Warren's directorial choices allow either to delineate any growth or change in their characters. Marianne Hagan performs well, although some of her choices in playing Abby are mysterious until late second act plot revelations.

As already noted, director David Warren has chosen to stage the play in a stylized, brittle manner, while directing his actors to employ a faux naturalistic style. He does this smoothly, abetted by the sliding multi-purpose wooden screens by James M. Youmans which are also stylized and faux natural. Possibly, a more highly stylized performance style by the actors might better convey Dietz's intentions.

Given the brilliance of much of Dietz's dialogue ("I don't like to write, only to have written.") and his reported reputation as an "avid rewriter," there is reason for hope that he can turn the fascinating and literate, but seriously flawed Fiction into the resonant work that he is clearly striving to achieve.

Fiction by Steven Dietz. Directed by David Warren. Cast: Robert Cuccioli (Michael), Marianne Hagan (Abby), Laila Robins (Linda).

Runs through April 13, 2003 at McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place Princeton, NJ. Order tickets online at or by telephone, 609-258-5050. Performances: Evenings: Wed —Sun (1st Wk. Tues. Preview) 8P.M. / Matinees: Sat & Sun 4P.M.

Scheduled Event: April 29 —May 19, 2003 - Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, adapted and directed by Emily Mann ; Cast includes: Amanda Plummer, William "Biff" McGuire, Natacha Roi, Steven Skybell, Jonathan Hogan, Michael Siberry, Isa Thomas.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

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