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Julie White in Fiction
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Michael (Tom Irwin) and Linda (Julie White) are arguing about who has given the greatest rock vocal performance of all time. He says John Lennon with "Twist and Shout." She maintains it's Janis Joplin with "Piece of My Heart" and even leaps from her chair in a Paris café to do a full-out, thoroughly convincing Joplin imitation, right down to the mouth twisted in agony and the raised, bent left leg. This discussion will immediately hook any music fan whose tastes crystallized during a certain era. It's particularly effective as played by Irwin and White, two actors who seemingly can't make a move that isn't absolutely spot-on believable. Everything about them is recognizable, spontaneous.

So Steven Dietz's three-character play Fiction, about the fictions and realities that keep a marriage afloat or don't, is off to a solid start. Irwin and White are such convincing performers that they keep the characters afloat even though their marriage runs onto some brutal rocks. Emily Bergl as a woman named Abby Drake, whom Michael and Linda first meet at different times in a writers' colony that they frequent, also does her bit to vivify the script. And so does the reliable director David Warren, for whom guiding everyday people through everyday activities is like falling off a log.

But even actors this accomplished -- actors who make something riveting of every half-smile and raised eyebrow, every frustrated slump of the shoulders and halting step, every little laugh, every display of emotive body English -- can't make a defective play whole. Under Warren's fastidious hand, the enterprising trio eventually has trouble with the confusing hall of mirrors that Dietz has constructed. (Spoiler alert: In detailing the play's perceived flaws, this review will reveal many of its plot points). The playwright wants to say something about the stories we tell ourselves and each other so that life can continue to roll smoothly. He does his job by using diaries as a device and casting doubts on their veracity from the get-go: "Of a man and his memory," Michael suggests in an early monologue, "memory is the better writer." He's saying to be wary of what people, including himself, claim to remember accurately.

Fiction has so many twists and turns that Tour de France cyclists would likely throw up their gloved hands if faced with negotiating this course. In making hoity-toity literary points about fiction and reality, truth and falsehood, Dietz almost immediately hits Michael and Linda, who married not long after the lively Paris encounter, with bad news: According to a brain tumor diagnosis, she's got three weeks to live. Linda insists, as she looks death in the eye, that Michael read her diaries once she's gone. He agrees reluctantly, at which time she announces it's only fair that she read his diaries before she heads off to that writers' colony in the sky.

That both have kept diaries over the years isn't such a big coincidence; nor is the fact that they both have worked on their novels at the writers' colony, where Emily supervises activities as a descendent of the organization's founder. Linda's novel, At the Cape -- supposedly a fictionalized account of her rape in South Africa -- was written a few years before Michael checked in to toil over his first book. He had to contend with horrible writer's block when he first entered. Linda learns about this when reading Michael's notebooks, and she also learns that Michael and Abby did more at the colony than discuss the relative merits of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë over beer.

At this point, the play begins to take flying leaps in terms of its plot developments. Having hinted that there was something between herself and Linda that neither is copping to, Abby shows up at the couple's unhappy home to say a last farewell. She learns that Linda has been given some sort of medical reprieve; seems as if she was only suffering from that contagious malady Movie Illness, after all. But what to do now that Linda knows from Michael's diaries that he and Abby have been carrying on a long-term affair? Or have they? Michael now maintains he was lying to Dear Diary about everything after the initial fling; it was all fiction.

That's not the end of the contrivances. Dietz needs to get Michael reading Linda's diaries and has to dream up another health reversal for her, at which bend in the road Linda's acclaimed novel about South Africa and rape begins to look more fictional that the lady novelist avowed. Then Dietz returns Linda and Michael to the Paris café moments before their kick-off banter for a final uplift, much as Donald Margulies shows us his innocents at the end of the recently revived Sight Unseen.

Tom Irwin and Emily Bergl in Fiction
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
When writers take up fiction vs. reality as a topic, they're on dangerous ground. Cervantes got away with it in Don Quixote, but since then it's the bold scribe who tilts at the subject -- and it's the lucky one who does so in a way that's not pretentious. With Fiction, Dietz doesn't get lucky. His gabby Michael is such a pedant about his writing and himself that he can't stop showing off; he's a know-it-all jerk, at one point spouting about how paint-color specialists are known as "swatch bards." Once Dietz has played fast and loose with Linda's health so he can get all the incriminating diaries read, he's knocked so many holes in his story that it collapses. By the final fadeout, the audience pretty much knows what's real and what's fiction in the characters' revelations about themselves, but do they care? Not much.
Dietz has gotten lucky with his actors and director, as celebrated above. White, who's given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to three plays in the year before this one, here establishes yet again how valuable an asset she is. Irwin, a husky, shambling man with a broad and friendly face, is equally worthy; he makes Michael's oppressive smarts as palpable and as acceptable as possible. Bergl's Abby is also believable -- an astonishing accomplishment since, as written, the young woman with her vague history is not entirely credible. And, with Warren leading them sensitively, the others on the creative team do fine work. Costumer David C. Woolard, lighting designer Jeff Croiter, and sound designer John Gromada give the play an airy outing. Set designer James Youmans sets a few chairs, a table, and a few desks in front of backdrops meant to represent the writers' colony and the Michael-Linda residence. The backdrops are cut to resemble pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; it's a bright idea, pertinent to the notion that we're all regularly required to make sense of the puzzles of our lives. Too bad Dietz tried to solve the puzzle of his script by forcing the parts together whether or not they fit.

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