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Secrets between lovers
Sunday, March 30, 2003
By TED OTTEN

In the first few pages of "Fiction," the world premiere drama that opened at McCarter Theatre in Princeton Friday, playwright Steven Dietz introduces the charmingly quarrelsome Michael and Linda Waterman, 40-something husband-and-wife writers who met 20 years ago in a Paris cafe.

By Page 11, Linda has been diagnosed with a brain tumor and is living what doctors predict is the last three weeks of her life. Both Watermans keep diaries and, although both have scrupulously respected the other's privacy, Linda asks Michael to promise to read her journals after her impending death. In return, she wants to read his - now. For Dietz, the creation of "Fiction" happened faster and with less trauma than his other 24 plays. Dietz, who lives and works in Seattle, had worked for four months on a TV series, which he described as "a profitable but miserable experience."

Having followed the conventions of media writing for four months, Dietz felt a compelling need to "just write talk, maybe 10 pages of real human dialogue." And when McCarter's literary manager Liz Ingleman, who was working at a Seattle theater at the time, offered him a tiny stipend for "a little something" for a drama festival, the creation of the play began.

What started as 10 pages was growing into a full-length play when Dietz's TV show offered him $30,000 to write, in just a few days, a final episode, which would probably not air since the series was being canceled. Dietz
turned down the offer to finish the two-act, three-character play and direct its first reading. Within a month of the play's completion, it was optioned for its premiere by McCarter, where it's being directed by David Warren. "When we say we want to know everything about the people we love,do we really?" asks Warren. "What sort of necessary secrets do we keep from each other? What happens when secrets that might have been carried to
the grave become known and have to be lived with? Probing into the corners of the heart, into the recesses of a relationship is what this play wants to do."

McCarter veteran Robert Cuccioli plays Michael, whom he sees as having changed significantly during the 20 years covered by the play's events. "Like most intelligent kids just out of college, he had a burning ambition to do something really creative. He had a real disdain for, and is bitter about, anyone who went after the money in pop culture," Cuccioli says. "He wanted to be an artist but, ironically, ends up just like those he loathes." Cuccioli enjoys playing a man who's acerbic though charming. Like Michael, Cuccioli keeps journals of his own - although he's not sure exactly why. He reported that he once tried to read his diaries on New Year's Day to see how the previous year has been spent. "I didn't get through them. By the time I got to March, I'd put myself to sleep," he explains.

"But Michael's journals are storehouses, sketch pads of ideas for his novels. He's now a very famous and popular writer, but he has something of a guilty conscience for selling out," Cuccioli continues. "He wanted iterature to be art rather than commerce. His artful young self scorns the work of someone named Donovan Cooper and would have been appalled by what his literary agent, who's meaning to be complimentary, tells him:
`You have now supplanted Cooper as the novelist Hollywood most desires.' "Michael's journals contain a guilty secret, but he can hardly deny his dying wife's request. Early in his marriage, while staying at a writers' retreat called Drake Colony, he had a affair with a woman named Abby Drake and, although the romance lasted only a month, Abby has become his inspiration, his muse. As Michael writes in one of his journal entries, "I know that whatever the future may hold, I will invent her forever."

Laila Robins, who plays Linda, believes Michael's wife makes her journal-swapping request spontaneously, "as a way of getting closer to her husband before she dies. The quality of their long rapport probably gives her the certainty that she can handle whatever she finds. She has little trouble forgiving Michael's affair; she's not throwing away their relationship based on that. The real obstacle is Abby's continued presence in Michael's journals and consciousness. Maybe that's more truth than she's ready for."

And what secrets will Linda's journals reveal? "Some of the joy and fun of this play - and it's both touching and funny - is that just when you think you're sure you know where it's going, it goes somewhere else. Let's leave those secrets for the second act," she says.

"Fiction" runs through April 13 at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton Borough. 8 p.m.
Wednesday-Friday, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $31 to $47. April 2 and 6 have post-performance discussions. April 13 is an audio-described/American Sign language-interpreted performance. Rush tickets, when available, in-person only on performance days at half price. (609) 258-2787 or
www.mccarter.org

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