While E! may have zero interest in the private lives of writers (imagine the network curtailing an Olsen twins spot for a behind-the-scenes look at Joyce Carol Oates), the endless spate of biographies of famous authors suggests that there’s still an appetite for literary dish. Novelists and poets continue to fascinate us, largely because we’d like to know how it is they do what they do—and whether they’re as nuts as everyone says. Steven Dietz’s Fiction, a puzzling drama about husband-and-wife bestselling authors, relies heavily on our interest in such matters. The story of a marriage literally in its death throes (Linda has been diagnosed with a rare brain tumor) bounces between past and present, from home to a Paris café to a prestigious writers’ colony. Nothing if not high-minded, the play examines the limitations of words (even in the hands of supposed masters) to convey the shadowy truth of human relationships. But its contrived characters spend far too much time boring us with their stilted chat.
After receiving the worst possible medical diagnosis, Linda makes her dying request: She wants Michael to hand over his personal journals. Hunkering down beside the hill of notebooks, she asks him to leave her alone while she wends her way through his recorded musings. Needless to say, the diaries make for turbulent reading. Dominating the entries is a mysterious younger woman named Abby, a figure Michael first encounters at the Drake Colony. Describing her as a “lethal combination of beauty, danger, youth, and wit,” he vows that “whatever the future may hold, I will invent her forever.” The dramatic question is: How many of the hundreds of pages devoted to Abby are true? Is he guilty of having a lengthy affair or simply an adulterous imagination?
The story’s outline is intriguing, though the execution drains the excitement. A problem stems from the elevated language Dietz stuffs into his characters’ mouths. Linda and Michael sound less like actual writers than like someone’s baroque idea of the way writers speak. And it’s never a good idea for a playwright to serve up his novelist characters’ prose—unless the aim is pure parody. If only Dietz could have momentarily forgotten that Linda and Michael are writers, perhaps he could have made them convincingly human.
David Warren’s direction compounds the thin reality of the piece. The stage is bare except for a café table and a few chairs—making it easy to drown in the tedious verbal flood. The cast can do nothing but try to animate clichés. Julie White has more success with sympathetic Linda than Tom Irwin has with blowhard Michael; Emily Bergl succeeds to a fault in embodying the cipher Abby. In the end, Fiction demonstrates nothing so much as the fact that imaginative writing requires more than a good idea to bring it to life.