In truth, vibrant couple takes 'Fiction' only so far
By Douglas J. Keating
Inquirer Theater Critic



PRINCETON - Fiction opens with a man and a woman talking animatedly in a Paris cafe, and ends with the same couple in the same place, doing the same. By returning to the beginning to end his play, author Steven Dietz inadvertently emphasizes the weakness as well as the strengths of his new work, premiering at the McCarter Theatre.
    The dueling dialogue between the man and woman, aspiring writers named Michael and Linda, is brilliantly humorous and presented with fluent, keen-edged delivery by Robert Cuccioli and Laila Robins in director David Warren's perfectly pitched production. Their talk is exhilarating to listen to; it's absorbing to watch the actors play. Many other scenes are exhilarating and absorbing in this extremely well-writen play by the author of such works as God's Country, Lonely Planet and Rocket Man, which have been produced by Philadelphia theaters.

    The first scene, though, is perhaps the best, and it's understandable that Dietz would want to return to it. But
by doing so, he reminds us that, in areas such as plot, character growth and meaningful comment, his play hasn't really gone much of anywhere.

    In that opening sequence, Michael and Linda are getting acquainted and good-naturedly attack one another, arguing passionately over meaningless things - such as who gave the better performance, John Lennon and the Beatles in "Twist and Shout" or Janis Joplin in "A Piece of My Heart." By the second sequence they've been married for 20 years, have established careers as novelists, and Linda has just learned she has only three weeks to live. That last turn of events seems as much a contrivance in the theater as it does on the newspaper page, and it gives the play a made-up feel from which it never recovers. Both Michael and Linda have faithfully kept diaries, and although neither has ever shown any interest in what the other has written, the dying Linda wants to read Michael's before she dies. This can only lead to trouble, and sure enough, his diary describes an affair with Abby, one of the staff at a writer's colony. (She is played by Marianne Hagan in a performance as strong as the other two.)

Dietz is not as interested in the romantic ramifications of the affair as the influence Abby had on Michael's writing - and, a bit too conveniently, on Linda's as well. Does it matter where an artist gets inspiration? Can inspiration ever be illegitimate? These are the play's issues, but Dietz seems unable to make them compelling; even the play's characters lose interest in them. Neither do Michael and Linda develop or change. They are, throughout, the same bright, vibrant, almost too-witty-to-be-real couple in that Paris cafe. That's almost enough.