Playwright: Steven Dietz. At: Remy Bumppo Theatre at the Victory Gardens Greenhouse, 2257 N. Lincoln. Phone: 773-871-3000; $35-$40. Runs through: Nov. 4
Steven Dietz' Fiction is a clever but not a great play. And entertaining though it is, Fiction suffers by inviting comparison with two plays that are inarguably great, Harold Pinter's Betrayal and Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing. The latter centers on a playwright, and toys with the audience's perception of what is real and what is a product of the playwright's imagination. The former is a triangular love story that unfolds backward, beginning with the end of the affair and ending with the first bloom of ardor. Fiction contains many of these elements, but where Stoppard and Pinter are breathtaking in their execution of them, Dietz is merely quite good at it.
Yet—as directed by Nick Sandys and featuring the superlative trio of Annabel Armour, David Darlow and Linda Gillum—Fiction is so marvelously engaging that it's easy to overlook the fact that it's a pale version of other, better dramas.
Darlow and Armour play writers Michael and Linda Waterman. He's a best-selling 'hack,'and she's the author of a single, monumental book about a rape and murder in South Africa.
People don't really talk like Michael and Linda Waterman. Whether arguing about the world's greatest rock song or bemoaning an afternoon that passed too quickly, the Watermans speak in Noel Coward-like quips and elevated, ultra-intelligent repartee. It's thanks to the cast's grounded, emotionally resonant performances that Dietz' dialogue crackles with truth rather than artifice.
Fiction begins in dodgy territory: Linda has a brain-tumor that, in addition to threatening her life, threatens to propel the tale into the woeful world of disease-of-the-week cliché. But Dietz manages to avoid both maudlin banalities. Instead, he sets off on a literary thriller of sorts. The mystery begins with Linda's dying request to read Michael's journals, something that anyone who has been married more than an hour knows is a Grade A Bad Idea. Or as Dietz so aptly puts it, 'A marriage . . . is not a tell-all enterprise. It is a pact between necessary strangers.'
And sure enough, emotional havoc ensues as Linda discovers journal after journal chronicling Michael's affair with Abby ( Gillum, perfectly embodying Abby's 'lethal combination of beauty, danger, youth and wit.' ) a young woman met at a writer's colony.
The puzzle centers on how much of Michael's journals are true and how much are the creation of a man who carried out an affair on paper that he couldn't manage in actual flesh. Or at least, that's part of the puzzle. Dietz adds some nice, double-back-around twists involving both Linda's writing and her health—Which brings me to the one segment of fiction in Fiction that glares with implausibility: Despite undergoing aggressive chemo and radiation treatments, Linda loses neither her hair nor her stiletto-sharp mental capacity. Now that's a bit of fiction that defies credibility.