"The lies begin when you lift the pen."
As Neil Simon notes in Biloxi Blues: "People believe whatever they read. Something magical happens once it's put down on paper. They figure no one would go to the trouble of writing it down if it wasn't the truth." That's a concept playwright Steven Dietz simultaneously underscores and undermines in Fiction, a piece about married writers with secrets to keep whose personal diaries reveal lies of both commission and omission. And the woman who figures into each one's deceit.
An intimate drama cleverly constructed, Fiction is a stylistic smorgasbord, rife with witty wordplay, overlapping dialogue, narrative asides, real and imagined events and leaps between past and present. But at its core, Dietz—whose works often dissect dishonesty in intimate relationships—poses the theory that "the only thing harder than living with a secret would be dying with one." To that end, he gives us Linda (Tressa Bern), a novelist and professor of literary fiction diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor, and her self-described "hack" husband, Michael (Rob Turney), who churns out books he labels "pre-emptive novelizations of soon-to-be-forgettable movies." Linda requests that, upon her death, Michael peruse her personal journals—but first, before she kicks, she wants to read his. With that, the bomb's a-tickin'. Reluctantly, Michael consents and Linda learns that at a creative retreat, he began a longtime dalliance with Abby Drake (Kelley Goode), the manager of a writer's colony where, we later discover, Linda also spent time. And so the common thread of their secrets can also unravel them.
Fiction's characters are firmly planted in intellectual boomer-ville: smart people swapping snappy bon mots. When we meet Michael and Linda, they are playfully debating who gave the best rock performance of all time—Lennon? Joplin?—their wiseass needling their preferred form of courtship. Dietz has drawn them as highbrows who, depending on your taste for the verbal one-upmanship of slick sophisticates, you'd either flock to at a cocktail party or flee from on the street. They exist in a brainy artistic bubble, their story stretching from a writer's colony to a college classroom. Dietz ping-pongs through time to reconstruct events involving Michael's wandering heart, Linda's best-selling book and Abby's oddly persistent presence, as revealed by what's documented, and undocumented, in their diaries. And the playwright keeps the puzzle percolating by building a foundation for his characters, then kicking the legs out from beneath them. And us.
Las Vegas Little Theatre mines much of this play's potential for exposing our false notions of truthful relationships, but a casting misstep causes the production to buckle at critical moments. In a performance that colors outside the lines of the character to a disturbing degree, Turney's Michael is often broad, bordering on goofy and loud rather than literate. His gregarious presence fills the stage but lacks the subtleties of a complicated, conflicted man. Dietz's sharp dialogue only gets him halfway there, leaving a portrayal largely bereft of intellectual heft. That's especially glaring when he fails to provide the connective tissue between two strong actresses radiating intelligence.
As Linda, Bern balances an acerbic wit and a weary cynicism—notably when addressing the audience as her classroom students—with just enough residual vulnerability to feel the pain of Michael's betrayal, with a slice of her soul darkened by a deception of her own. Abby, played with brittle sexiness by Goode, exudes a sadder-but-wiser maturity as both Michael's secret and the keeper of Linda's.
Director Paul Thornton nicely juggles Dietz's spinning wheel of time, place and tone—past and present sometimes colliding as one character reads the diary entry being played out before us—abetted by Shawn Hackler's lighting punctuating the shifts. Even "sparse" wouldn't quite describe Ron Lindblom's table-and-chairs set surrounded by a simple curtain, ensuring no visual distractions from the playwright's heady brew of words and ideas. But Michael Canales' often ominous, Twilight Zone-y music is frequently discordant, particularly when framing Dietz's bubbly banter.
Philosophers tell us that facts aren't necessarily the same as truth, and truth is relative. We all have our own versions of it to justify ourselves. Fiction at least searches for some truth about how we lie.