THE LIES BEGIN: Fictions and facts, past and present interweave as Michael (Robert Cuccioli) and Linda (Laila Robins), two novelists married to each other, read each others' journals in the world premiere of Steven Dietz's "Fiction," playing at McCarter Theatre through April 13.

In Steven Dietz's Fiction, Tragicomedy of Moods and Memories McCarter Premiere Asks: How Much Truth Can A Marriage Stand?

by Donald Gilpin

I never travel without my diary," asserts Gwendolyn Fairfax in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. "One should always have something sensational to read on the train."

Though Gwendolyn inhabits a world far removed from that of Steven Dietz's troubled couple in his new play Fiction, currently running at McCarter Theatre, the diary reading seems to be no less sensational in this contemporary tale of marriage and memories, secrets and deceptions. As the title implies, this play is most importantly about the art of fiction, the tales we tell in our journals and in our minds to make sense and significance of our lives. "Of a man and his memory," opines one of the main characters, "memory is the better writer."

Linda (Laila Robins) and Michael (Robert Cuccioli), both novel writers and assiduous journal-keepers, have been married for 20 years when Linda is diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. She has only three weeks to live. "Before I go I want to read your journals," she declares, forgetting what she will soon remember, that "a marriage, however good, is not a 'tell-all' enterprise. It is a pact between necessary strangers."

She digs into the box of Michael's journals, and Michael's past comes to life on stage as Linda reads. Later in the play he will read her journals.

Secrets true and fictitious, "landmines" that they both have so carefully avoided emerge, and the verbal evasions and acrobatics that both have so deftly employed throughout their years of marriage cannot help them to escape these apparent truths.

Mr. Dietz, a master craftsman whose plays have been produced at more than 80 regional theaters over the past two decades (though never in a major New York City production), starts from a clever and enticing premise here. In examining the secrets and deceptions in the most intimate of relationships, he is exploring territory familiar to him, and he keeps his audience engaged from start to finish, though the final payoff may seem less rich than the intriguing premise. The lives of these novelists prove ultimately less exciting and meaningful than the fictions they have created.

The pace is swift, as the plot ranges freely back and forth from the present to the episodes recollected and recorded in the journals over a period of some 20 years. The urbane dialogue is smart, quick, funny, and highly literate.

"A play about lies must be a comedy," Mr. Dietz once wrote, "because only laughter can make us recognize truths we're not fond of. Only laughter is generous enough to hear us out, to listen to our foibles and our familiar debacles...and let us think that next time it will be different." The comedy in Fiction is rich and sharp, and so are the insights into relationships and the writer's craft.

Michael is particularly piercing and amusing in his analysis of himself as a middle-aged man and novelist: "As a writer I am really only good at two things: envy and criticism." Or, "Like most men of my age and station, I wish only to write about two things: injustice and women. While many of us claim to write about the former, we are all just writing about the latter."

Little more of the plot, which depends on its surprises and secrets, will be revealed here, but a third figure, Abby (Marianne Hagan), does appear as part of Michael's past. She then resurfaces in the present, and turns out to have played an important role in the journals and past lives of both spouses.

Seasoned New York director David Warren has mounted a polished, first-rate production that keeps focus squarely on the three intertwined characters, and these actors are up to the challenges here. James M. Youmans' set emphasizes minimalism and simplicity, with only basic furniture pieces on stage and partial walls flying smoothly in and out to help establish different settings. Donald Holder's lighting design contributes dynamically to creating the subtly shifting moods and locales and making the frequent shifts in time and place clear to the audience.

Ms. Robins and Mr. Cuccioli, distinguished stage and screen actors and real-life romantic partners, bring these married writers to life with charm and eloquence. They are compelling to watch in their verbal dueling, in their serious conflicts, and in their moments of nostalgia, pain, and sorrow. Ms. Robins' Linda is especially appealing in her energetic complexity, character depth, and anguish. Ms. Hagan delivers solid, convincing support as a younger woman, encountering both protagonists on separate occasions at the Drake Writers' Colony.

Entertainment value here is high, although these seductively winning characters and the sumptuous verbal feast they provide prove to be illusory. Linda and Michael are more intriguing and charming than sympathetic. These characters, both creative writers, and their creator Mr. Dietz fool us with their fictions.

At several points in the play Linda is seen teaching a class, Advanced Fiction Workshop, and perhaps a workshop in advanced fiction for students of writing and students of life is exactly the experience Mr. Dietz intends to offer here. Like most good classes, this one will resonate in your mind and provoke discussion long after it is over. Let's hope McCarter's premiere opens more opportunities for Mr. Dietz's work to be seen on the East Coast.

The world premiere of Steven Dietz's Fiction plays at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, through April 13. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org for show times, reservations, and further information.