Playwright sees the 'Fiction' behind every person's 'truth'

Friday, March 21, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

So how many husbands and wives out there would allow their spouses to read their diaries?

Two do in Steven Dietz's "Fiction," which starts previews on Tuesday at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, prior to opening on March 28.

It's the story of two writers, the happily married Linda and Michael Waterman. Both believe that they've been totally honest with the other.

Now, though, the seriously ill Linda (Laila Robins) has only a short time to live. She wants to leave her diaries for Michael (Robert Cuccioli) to read.

"But," says the playwright from his Seattle home, "Linda feels that with Michael reading her most intimate thoughts, he should let her read his diaries before she dies.

"As much as I don't like Hollywood," says Dietz, "I will use a famous Hollywood phrase to describe what happens: 'Complications ensue.'"

An aversion to Hollywood is one reason why Dietz penned "Fiction."

"I was writing an episode for an action TV series," he says, declining to identify the show, "which means more writing descriptions of what's happening than dialogue -- you know, 'Her skirt flies up her legs as the Russian thugs chase her down the stairwell.' So when I got a call from Liz Engleman, the director of new play development at ACT (A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle), talking about a new play festival, I told her that I'd at least write a scene -- just to get a chance to write dialogue instead of describing a car chase."

For the past 25 years, since the age of 19, Dietz kept books in which he wrote ideas. He ran across a note he once made -- "Two married writers share their diaries" -- and began writing.

Says Engleman, "I knew Steven from the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville and was convinced that once he started this, he wouldn't be able to stop with a single scene."

Dietz didn't. "I even gave up that $30,000 TV job to write it."

The result is the full-length "Fiction" -- so named because Dietz believes that "when you write about an incident, just the act of writing involves some level of invention. Even if you try to tell the truth, you're still concerned with looking good on paper, so that changes the nature of truth, and turns it into a type of fiction."

Dietz says he's never kept a diary -- "partly because I've been too busy and interested in writing plays." The author's works, including "Lonely Planet" and "More Fun Than Bowling," have received more than 100 productions in regional theaters. His "Private Eyes" was produced at 12 Miles West Theatre Company in Montclair in 1998.

Though the first reading of "Fiction" at ACT went well, no one could commit to producing it because the theater was in the process of hiring a new artistic director. When Engelman became McCarter's literary director, she set up a reading for "Fiction." "By the end of that same day," she says, "we agreed to do it."

Dietz insists that he didn't write about his own life, even though he, too, is a writer married to a writer. She's Allison Gregory, and together they adapted the popular children's book, "Go, Dog, Go!" for the Seattle Children's Theatre.

"Allison understood why I turned down the big money to write this play," he says. But both, he adds, were happy when he was awarded $10,000 from the Kennedy Center Fund for American Plays for "Fiction." "And to think," he says in a dreamy voice, "it got that grant without a single car chase in it."

Copyright 2003 The Star-Ledger. Used by with permission.

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