The first scene of Fiction pulls off a telling bit of trickery. Two people argue and banter over espressos in a Paris cafe. Playful, self-conscious and hyperliterate, they seem a long-married couple. But as they rise to leave the cafe, the woman extends her hand in farewell, and we realize this has been a first -- and purely accidental -- meeting.
By the second act, Michael and Linda, both novelists, are indeed long and happily married. But Linda has just been diagnosed with a brain tumor and told she has three weeks left to live or, as she prefers to think of it, twenty more dinners to consume. She knows the stories almost everyone with a terminal diagnosis hears again and again -- the exciting new treatment for a disease hitherto seen as incurable, or the sudden, medically inexplicable remission. But much as she'd like to, she's too damn smart to believe anything this cliched. Accepting the reality of her situation, she asks Michael to read her diaries after her death. Why, he wants to know, and a discussion follows about why it is that people keep diaries and how truthful a diary can really be. There's also a corollary: Before she dies, Linda wants to read Michael's journals, too.
Linda's request sets the theme and structure for Steven Dietz's well-designed play. She begins reading about Michael's stay at a writers' colony, the same colony where she completed her acclaimed -- and apparently autobiographical -- novel, At the Cape. In fact, it was her intercession that got the so-far-unpublished Michael admitted. The manager of the colony was an enigmatic young woman named Abby Drake. She and Michael talked and sparred, and the inevitable romance blossomed. Rapturous passages about Abby fill Michael's diaries from that point on, and Linda -- who was prepared to forgive her husband a brief affair -- is devastated. Except that when confronted, Michael says he never had an ongoing affair with Abby and just invented the details about her in his journal.
1080 Acoma Street
Presented by Curious Theatre Company through June 24, 303-623-0524, www.curious theatre.org
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More complications ensue. Abby shows up at the Watermans' house wanting to see not Michael, but Linda. And Linda finds the inane plot line she imagined immediately after her diagnosis coming true: Medical science seems to have a cure for her cancer, making her imminent death a mere "oncological misapprehension." Unfortunately, this means that instead of dying tidily in three weeks, "Now I get to live with this" -- that is, with the knowledge of Michael's feelings for Abby.
Dietz wrote Fiction long before the furor over James Frey's pseudo-memoir, A Million Little Pieces, but he certainly anticipated much of the current discussion about the veracity of memoir as a literary form. Early in the play, Linda talks about a creative-writing teacher she had in college who committed suicide when the lies in her memoir were revealed -- at which point her book began selling better than ever. But it's almost impossible to be truthful about ourselves, even when we're trying. The protagonist of a journal or memoir is a blend of the author's real self (however defined), the person he imagines or would like himself to be, and a construct made of literary tropes and the creator's personal technique as a writer. Is a diary really private? Does its author imagine a reader, and does that imagining shape what appears on the page? Writing itself is a dishonest act. Michael sells out his idealistic younger self to become the kind of best-selling, blockbuster-a-year novelist he once despised. Linda's achievement is unquestionably literary, but she's famous because of the general belief that she herself endured the horrors her central character suffered. Which may not be the case.
Playwright Steven Dietz was born and raised in Denver. Although his plays have been produced all over the country, they have not been seen much in New York; Fiction received a dismissive review from the New York Times when it was staged off-Broadway at the Roundabout. Yet his plays are far more skilled and interesting than much of the work being praised on the East Coast. It's true that you don't particularly feel for Michael and Linda. You don't fret about the problems in their marriage or grieve over her impending death. These are not deep characters; they exist at the service of ideas. And they are also arrogant and pretentious. Michael dismisses Rainer Maria Rilke's work as "infantile nonsense"; given the way Linda addresses her creative-writing class, it would be a wonder if any of the students ever summoned up the nerve to write anything. But these people are also charming and fun. If Dietz's plot wouldn't sustain much scrutiny summarized on a page, his dramaturgical devices, the way he teases the audience through the action, make it intensely enjoyable. And his language is not just witty; it's also textured, thought-provoking and expressive.
Under the direction of Jamie Horton, Curious Theatre Company has assembled a fine cast. John Hutton, who plays Michael, has always been a convincing actor, but I've found some of his past performances disappointing. He seems to get better and better as time passes, however, and Michael is also a perfect role for him. He plays it with engaging vitality as well as deploying his rueful, cynical intelligence to terrific effect. Martha Harmon Pardee's Linda has a wonderful strength and precision. Karen Slack's restrained performance as Abby hints at all kinds of secret passions. As an actor, director Horton himself always goes full out, but his work is also meticulously controlled, with nothing thrown away and every gesture and intonation cleanly finished. I imagine his direction contributed quite a bit to the excellence of the three performances.