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  Necessary Strangers

By: Matt Smith , TimeOFF 03/20/2003

                  Secrets and Lies: Real-life paramours Robert Cuccioli and   Laila Robins examine love and trust in ‘Fiction’ at McCarter Theatre. Steven Dietz's play opens March 25.  

                        TimeOFF/Frank WojciechowskiFictionB125.jpg (10535 bytes)

Fiction, starring Robert Cuccioli and Laila Robins,  above, goes inside a marriage where diaries are an open book.

Early in Steven Dietz's play Fiction, Michael Waterman, a middle-aged writer and husband to fellow novelist Linda,   offers this cautionary maxim: "A marriage, however good, is not a ‘tell-all’ enterprise. It is a pact between necessary strangers."

When Michael and Linda decide to read each other's journals, the previously untold truths contained therein cast doubt on their relationship. The couple is left groping to reconcile the truths of a life together with the deceits perpetrated on them by their partner. Mr. Dietz's twisting domestic drama makes its world premiere at McCarter Theatre in Princeton March 25-April 13.

Fiction stars real-life paramours Robert Cuccioli as  Michael and Laila Robins as Linda. In a backstage conversation before a day of rehearsals, the two accomplished actors tend   to concur with the playwright's contention — save the deceit part.

"I agree that people have to be their own person, and there's a part of each individual that should remain theirs, so about not being a ‘tell-all’ enterprise, I buy that," says   Mr. Cuccioli, best known for his Tony-nominated turn in Jekyll & Hyde. "The ‘necessary strangers’ phrase, basically, is that these two people are necessary to each other, but also allowed to have aspects that are private within themselves. I think I buy that, too."

Ms. Robins, who has starred opposite the likes of Jeremy Irons, Gary Sinise and Uta Hagen, finds society's sometimes immature notion of romantic love overlooks the solitary nature of the human condition."It's that ultimate aloneness that we have to come to terms with," she says. "I think people find that as they get into more mature relationships, those boundaries are what can make the relationship work. When you're younger, you think you're  going to merge with someone, that you're going to merge with Mommy or merge with Daddy, and you're going to become one, like they say in certain Biblical texts.

"On the other hand, you have to be two, strong individuals," adds the 44-year-old Ms. Robins, who acted in McCarter's 1999 production of Fool for Love. "Someone said that you are the protector of the other person's aloneness, that's part of your job. Because, in the end, it's just you and the Big Guy."

Like his character in Fiction, Mr. Cuccioli, who first appeared at McCarter two years ago in The School for Scandal, keeps a daily journal. At the end of the year, he goes back and begins to read his entries. "I'll get to March and then  I'll bore myself.

"When this play came up," says the actor, also 44, "it actually put the question in my mind: ‘Why do I do that?’ Why does one journalize? Are you really writing for someone to ead in the future, and if so, why? And are you really saying something important?"

If you are chronicling your life for future readers, Ms. Robins points out, it makes the entire process suspiciously self-conscious: "Rather than writing for yourself, which is I think more of a purging of your feelings and emotions and things that are going on for you, you instead have the thought, ‘Well, my grandchildren will read this. How do I want it to be?’"

Although the two share many similarities, each took a dramatically different path to stage success. Mr. Cuccioli grew up in a culturally unaware family on Long Island, earned a finance degree at St. John's University in Queens and worked on Wall Street before eventually hitting it big in Broadway musicals. Ms. Robins, born in St. Paul, Minn., to theater-loving parents, studied piano and opera at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and honed her acting chops at Yale School of Drama.

Mr. Cuccioli and Ms. Robins met three years ago, but have acted together just once before, in a production of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra at the famed Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis last season. To avoid hurt feelings, the two Manhattanites set down some ground rules before, including not talking about the day's rehearsal over that night's dinner.

"For example, when I go into tech week, for me that's like really giving birth to the character, so I get a little like   this," says Ms. Robins, putting her head almost in her lap and hands on her temples. "We were talking about writers, who can literally say to their partner, ‘Hey, I'm going into this room for three days. Don't bother me,’ and that it's a legitimate artistic haven, a protected place the other person doesn't get to go. Sometimes as an artist you need that space."

"We did talk about how she works as opposed to how I work, and giving each other whatever space that w needed," Mr. Cuccioli says. "You can put yourself in a corner and say, ‘He or she's ignoring me,’ but it's not about that."

In addition to having a great time working with her beau, Ms. Robins says she also came away with a valuable lesson: "What I learned is that I had to be a lot nicer to my leading men, because I had to be really nice to Bob. I can be kinda bitchy when I'm working with people, actually," she says, her voice trailing off into laughter.

"You've gotten better, honey," says Mr. Cuccioli, putting  his arm around Ms. Robins.

But do they believe their romantic relationship will affect the audience's perception of their performances in Fiction?   "I think they would probably find it intriguing," says Mr. Cuccioli, who will direct Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie at the Shakespeare Festival of New Jersey in June. "They'll probably try to find some sort of aspects of us in the relationship that they see on stage. I don't know if that's an advantage or a disadvantage. I think it's certainly a novelty that there's an actual live couple on stage."

"I hope that it's intriguing instead of distracting," adds Ms. Robins. "It shouldn't make any difference, really. But I don't want them to be thinking about our lives when they're watching the play. I want them to experience the play."

                  Fiction plays at McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place,

                  Princeton, March 25-April 13. Performances: Wed.-Fri. 8 p.m.;

                  Sat. 4, 8:30 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.; March 25, 8 p.m.; April 6,

                  7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $24-$47. For information, call (609)

                  258-2787. On the Web:

                  ©Packet Online 2003

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