Written and Directed by Steven Dietz
ACT Theatre
700 Union St., Seattle, WA / 206-292-7676

Reviewed by Christopher Comte

"The lies begin when you lift the pen", is a line that comes up early on in "Fiction", Steven Dietz' witty, literate examination of the secrets we keep from even those we trust the most. Dietz, who also directs this production for ACT Theatre's season closer makes a strong case for his argument that the very act of chronicling real events turns them into something different from their actual reality, and so even the most deeply guarded secrets must be examined with a large dose of skepticism. If, as he suggests, all stories are indeed fiction ñ even those containing elements of truth ñ then what right does the reader have to impose a moral judgment on the events and people that are their source and inspiration?It's a slippery question, one with which Dietz himself struggles to find a satisfactory answer.

Dietz received a critical pounding for "Fiction" in its east coast run earlier this year, and given his reputation as an almost obsessive "re-writer", one would anticipate that the text has been significantly revised for this production. In addition, his taking the directorial reins indicates perhaps a sense that he may have felt other directors didn't quite "get" the complex, somewhat stylized relationship he's established between his trio of characters. It's always a risk, allowing a playwright to direct his or her own material, but in this instance the gambit pays off with a nuanced, subtle and thought-provoking production that goes a long way toward addressing some of the more glaring criticisms. If what ACT audiences see is markedly different from what previous reviewers panne d that is only to our advantage and the betterment of the piece itself.

The central question Dietz poses is really quite simple, but it is examined in a characteristically complex structure: is it better to die with a secret than to live with one? Mark (John Procaccino) and Linda Waterman (Suzanne Bouchard) are an almost insufferably self-absorbed pair of writers whose marriage is challenged when Linda is diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Given only three weeks to live, she struggles with her impending death in the only way that makes sense to her, by immersing herself in literature. When she suggests to Mark that they read each others private journals - hers posthumously, his immediately -- she opens a Pandora's Box that threatens to expose the lies and fictions both have created around their "real" lives and their literary creations. Early on, Dietz codifies their conflict by way of a metaphorical image extracted from Linda's highly successful debut novel, wherein her heroine, contemplating suicide, stares out from a promontory at the tip of The Cape Of Good Hope, to the point where the waters of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet in a thin white line that marks a border between two borderless entities. It's an image that suffuses the piece, as a reflection of the paradoxical merged, yet separated qualities that define Mark and Linda's own relationship. As she reads and he reminisces, their perceptions of events ebb-and-flow back-and-forth through time, to their first meeting at a Paris café, and to their parallel experiences at the same east coast writers retreat, where they each meet Abby (Emily Cedergreen), a docent at the center who ends up having a significant influence on both of them.

For all his facility with witty badinage, literary allusions and convoluted plotting, there's a certain sense that Dietz the writer may be too clever by half, and that he has set up the inciting action of the play too purposefully to draw us easily into the world he has so elaborately constructed. His use of the old "only weeks to live" gambit feels somewhat hackneyed, while the final "revelation" -- that perhaps there are some secrets worth living with after all ñ comes as little surprise, despite the labyrinthine path he takes to get there. But, Dietz the director does a highly creditable job of distracting us from the more labored aspects of his writing, as he deftly negotiates the play's constant shifts in time and location, presenting the audience with a jigsaw puzzle picture of a marriage, first by delineating the broad outlines of their relationship (a notion paralleled in Scott Weldin's suggestively spare, half-buried picture frame scenic design), then by gradually filling in the center with bits-and-pieces of both their shared and individual experiences, which eventually coalesce and merge, revealing the true nature of each character's hidden fears and longings.

It's clear from the outset that Mark and Linda are people who are adept at using words to effect, and Dietz has given them some marvelous words with which to tease, to seduce and even to wound one another. But, they are also shown to be more than mere figureheads in the touches of mundane humanity he allows them. Despite their Coward-like snobbishness, they're not above engaging in the most pedantically banal exchanges, as for example when they argue over which 1960's pop song has the best vocal track. They may be supercilious to the point of exasperation, but Procaccino and Bouchard take their respective characters beyond the surface stereotypes to unveil the core of humanity nestled within, investing them with the sorts of detailed gestures and nuanced unspoken responses that succinctly convey far more than be gleaned from their over-articulated verbiage. Which may in fact be the whole point behind Dietz' precisely crafted artifice; for it is in these moments, as they batter away at each other's armor of lies and fictions that their thoughts reveal the messy truths their carefully chosen words strive to conceal, leaving each to consider whether the damage they've caused was worth the temporary protection they afforded.

Procaccino, as the self-proclaimed "hack" writer of wildly popular novels gives an especially thoughtful performance, tempering Mark's hard-edged cynicism, and remorseful self-hatred with a genuine sense of love and admiration for Linda's ability to stand up to him. Bouchard, in turn revels in one of her strongest in a long string of memorable characterizations: passionate, witty, sarcastic and at times willfully petty, she and Procaccino parry and riposte like a pair of expert fencers, neither giving nor asking quarter, and both seemingly more than willing to take a hit if it means scoring two. But, it's always apparent that their need to wound is as much predicated on their own internalized sense of guilt and insecurity, as it is on a desire to punish. Cedergreen gives a decidedly less rounded characterization, hampered to a large degree by Abby's primary function as a plot device, but she nevertheless manages to keep herself "in the game" with a bracing directness that effectively contrasts Mark and Linda's verbal maneuverings.

The ending of "Fiction" contains an exquisitely executed double-reverse plot twist, but by then Dietz seems rather less interested in his displays of technical virtuosity than he is in reframing his thematic assertions. In spite of (or perhaps because of) his own sense of inadequacy, Mark decides keeping Linda's secret is more important than exposing it, if for no other reason than because it provides him with a private, tangible link to both her and Abby.In this case the "lie", based on truth of a sort, is one with which he seems content to live. It may not be the most satisfactory answer to the question Dietz poses, but it's one that the audience at least seems capable of accepting for its own sake.

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