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By: Stuart Duncan , TimeOFF 04/02/2003

What secrets exist in marriage? Robert Cuccioli and Laila Robbins portray a husband and wife who decide to
read each other's journals in Fiction at McCarter Theatre in Princeton. McCarter Theatre finds the truth in Steven Dietz's play about two writers married to one another.

Steven Dietz has written 25 plays, but Fiction, which had its world premiere Friday evening at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, is the first to open on the East Coast.The Seattle-based playwright was just finishing a
four-month assignment on a television series — a job he describes as unsatisfying intellectually, but most rewarding financially — when he was asked to write "a little something" for a West Coast drama festival. He turned down a $30,000 fee to write a final TV episode and instead penned that little something. It originally was expected to run about 10 pages. It took 10 times that many to tell the tale he had in mind. Dietz is the darling of regional theaters. His plays have been staged in 40 of them. McCarter grabbed this one.

Fiction tells the story of Linda and Michael, both successful writers, who thrive on the give-and-take of an
unusually honest marriage. We meet them as Linda has just discovered she has a brain tumor, rare and malignant. The doctors have given her but three weeks to live. Through the years of their marriage, both have kept journals. Now, so close to the end, she suggests that since Michael can read her diary after she is gone, perhaps she can read his now. As things turn out, both have secrets, and in some ways the evening becomes a mystery play. The playwright asks embarrassing questions: Can even the most honest of relationships stand the tension of secrets betrayed? Can trust survive such secrets? Is it ever possible to forgive betrayal? The questions are not asked blatantly, of course.

 PlaywrightDietz is far too clever for that. Rather, he disguises his intent beneath a constant stream of some of the most brilliant dialogue you will hear in years. The give-and-take, on which Michael and Linda thrive, is the finest of verbal swordplay.

The laughs come quickly and easily. Buried amid the laughter are simple truths: "None of us, given a good, hard look, can fail to disappoint." There is a third character, Abby, who touches both lives.  Herself the daughter of a most successful "hack" writer, she serves as the catalyst for destruction, if indeed it is going to come to that. In time, it is she who will allow us to unravel the threads of the mystery.

Director David Warren has dared to stage the work in simple, stark strokes, and his actors have followed
brilliantly. It would be hard to find a better cast of three Robert Cuccioli and Laila Robins work so well as Michael and Linda that it is easy to imagine them married for years and the inspiration for the playwright's scenes. Notice particularly how the simplest of conversations are shaded with insight, the pauses that often convey more than words, the looks that reach well into the heart.

Marianne Hagan has a more enigmatic role, and she handles it superbly, suggesting rather than implying. This is a play that urges an attentive audience to leap to conclusions, often the wrong ones. Dietz enjoys playing with us, offering frequent laughs.

In short, it is a thoroughly entertaining evening, brilliantly realized, provocative and extremely sure footed.
It deserves a shot at Broadway, and if so, would be the playwright's first.

Fiction continues at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, though April 13. Performances: Wed.-Fri. 8 p.m.; Sat. 4, 8:30 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m; April 6, 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $31-$47. For information, call (609) 258-2787. On the Web:

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