“Fiction,” by Steven Dietz (“Lonely Planet”), under the direction of David Warren, is having its world premiere at Princeton’s McCarter Theater March 25 – April 13
Playwright Steven Dietz interviewed by Simon Saltzman
I think we all agree that there can be many reasons for keeping a diary. At the most basic level, a diary is primarily (and traditionally daily) record of the way one’s life as perceived by the writer; made notable by the expressing of inner, sometimes extremely intimate, thoughts that validate the writing. It has been described by some as an act of mental cleansing. Virginia Woolf said, “I think diary writing has helped my (writing) style; loosened my ligatures.” A few years later the less erudite but certainly practical Mae West said, “ Keep a diary and one day it will keep you.”
During my phone chat with playwright Steven Dietz, whose play “Fiction” uses diaries as a catalyst for marital conflict, now having its world premiere at the McCarter Theatre, he made an additional observation: “I believe that the minute we put anything down on paper (i.e. diary) even if its fact it becomes fiction.” We both agree that the contents of a diary are rarely (though sometimes) intended for the eyes of others.
In “Fiction,” a conflict arises when a married couple, Linda and Michael, both writers who thrive on the give-and-take of their unusually honest relationship, decide to share their diaries when it turns out that Linda is dying. When Linda tells Michael that she is going to leave her diaries for him to read after she is dead, she requests that Michael give his diaries to her to read before she dies. The question that the play proposes is whether coming clean at the end is the right route to take.
I asked Dietz if that wasn’t a pre-ordained route to disaster. “A dramatist is always looking for a pre-ordained route to disaster,” he answers with a laugh. Dietz, whose route to the McCarter has included 24 world premieres, “Fiction,” being his 25th play (“it’s my silver jubilee,” he decrees) has yet to make much of a splash in the New York area. This, despite his being one of the country’s most prolific, versatile, and widely produced playwrights. He was pleased, however, when I mentioned how moved and impressed I was with “Lonely Planet,” his metaphorical play that dealt with friendship and fear in the age of AIDS. It received a nomination for Best Play from the Outer Critics Circle when it was produced in a limited run Off-Broadway in 1995.
Perhaps it was his subsequent romantic comedy “Private Eyes” (with productions world wide), that used such elements as passion, suspicion, secrecy and deception, that paved the way for “Fiction,” a more serious consideration of love and betrayal. A recipient of a 2003 New American Play Production Grant from the Kennedy Center, “Fiction” shows us what happens when boundaries begin to break down and how the lives of the married couple are not, as they presumed, an open book. “I had the notion for a long time, perhaps a dozen years or so, that the only thing harder than dying with a secret is living with one. This was to be the first time that I invented characters who were writers,” says Dietz about the genesis of the play.
It was McCarter’s literary director Liz Engelman who instigated the writing of “Fiction,” when, as a co-conceiver of a festival of new plays at FringeAct at ACT in Seattle, she asked Dietz if he had any new play to submit for consideration. He remembers saying to her, “No, I have nothing.” She was not only persistent, but also harangued Dietz enough to make him sit down and start writing. “I’m a completion freak, so I finished the first draft in about 2 1/2 weeks,” says Dietz, who admits that the notion of whom and how we deceive and the results of the deception are just a gold mine for drama. What I didn’t know was what the secret was and how the third character, a woman named Abby played into the lives of Linda and Michael,” says Dietz.
Unable to come up with an ending and only days before the play was scheduled to have its first public reading, Dietz sought out help where most husbands go when push comes to shove. It was Allison Gregory, Dietz’ wife, who is also a playwright, to whom he gives credit for helping him to navigate through the final surprises in the play. The McCarter picked up the play for production right after the reading with Engelman, acting as dramaturg.
What is it about the damaging effects of betrayal that fascinates Dietz? “I’m glad my life isn’t as interesting as the lives my characters have,” says Dietz, who freely admits that his agent, upon reading the play, did ask him if he was able to show it to his wife. While Dietz allows that the play couldn’t be farther from the relationship with his wife, the fact is, he says, “that people will find you in the play whether you are in there or not.” What the audience will be tracking in this play, explains Dietz, is whether the events in the diaries really happened and how fact and fiction can easily become blurred. “The big shock for me,” says Dietz,” after re-imagining what I had written down in some of my old diaries to discover how awful and boring they are now.”
One of the nicest discoveries for Dietz is the McCarter experience; one that he says is special because a playwright (Emily Mann) runs it. Afforded full cast, director and design approval, Dietz says he is pleased that Broadway stars Robert Cuccioli and Laila Robins are cast as Michael and Linda. Marianne Hagan, who is making her McCarter debut, plays Abby, the other woman. Cuccioli earned a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Musical for his work in the title role of Jekyll & Hyde and appeared last at the McCarter in Mark Lamos’ production of “The School for Scandal.” Laila Robins, who appeared on Broadway in “The Herbal Bed,” appeared at the McCarter in Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love.” “Fiction” will be under the direction of David Warren, who staged the Broadway revivals of “Holiday,” “Summer and Smoke,” and “Misalliance.”
Dietz actually began his theater career as a director at the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, where he staged the early workshop productions of plays by Lee Blessing and August Wilson. (“I lied my way in...a great graduate school,” he admits matter-of-factly). Dietz recalls Wilson as a poet who had just written his first play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Subsequently Dietz directed over 20 world premieres in such theaters as The Old Globe in San Diego, Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Dietz doesn’t deny that he certainly had an “in to direct workshops of his own growing canon of plays.
“It’s my writing, not my directing, that pays the bills these days,” says the 44 year-old Dietz, who prefers to be at home with his wife and their 3-½ year old daughter Ruby, rather than travel for work. Born in Denver, Colorado, “a career railroader’s kid,” Dietz grew up there and graduated in 1980 with a BA in Theater from the University of Northern Colorado. It was there that he wrote his first one-act play as his senior thesis.
“I kept on writing plays and discovered I could have a career outside of New York. But this is a big deal for me having a play done at McCarter. I’ve never had a play of mine world premiere on the East Coast. As an example he talks about “Private Eyes,” his “most commercial play” so far which had its premiere at the Humana Festival in Louisville. Because the NY Times gave it a kind of dismissive review it was never given a New York production. “Instead,” Dietz proclaims with no false modesty, “it was taken and done by about 35 regional theaters and paid my bills for about 5 years. Not afraid to tackle adaptations, Dietz says his version of “Dracula” has also been very popular. I’ve inverted the theater adage: I’ve made a living, but not a killing.”
The jury is still out whether Dietz is going to make the illusive killing with “Fiction.” Or would there be another kind of killing if he and his wife gave each other permission to read each other’s diaries. “I wouldn’t do that because if I shared a secret then I would want to discover a secret. If I ever thought it was a good idea, I got it out of my system by writing this play. However,” he added, “time has made me realize that if there ever was an intended audience for my diaries when I’m gone, it is my daughter Ruby.”