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Marriage as a thrill ride

Times Staff Writer

Some plays are like amusement park rides, filled with enough twists, plunges and loop-the-loops to leave theatergoers breathless with delight.

Steven Dietz’s “Fiction,” being given its West Coast premiere at the Old Globe after a prominent New York presentation, has this effect on some audience members. At an opening-weekend matinee, it elicited a smattering of gasps and murmurs while in progress and, afterward, sent theatergoers out the door engaged in bright, buzzing discussions about what had just occurred.

The problem with such a roller coaster of a show is that it must entice audience members to step aboard in the first place, and “Fiction” won’t appeal to everybody. It’s set in a rarefied world, among atypical people, and it’s built around hoary old potboiler devices.

The story focuses on an attractive pair of published authors: Linda (Nance Williamson) and Michael Waterman (Kurt Rhoads). As the plot repeatedly flips back in time, it reveals the pair as sparklingly literate individuals who love nothing more than heart-pumping debate. There’s a good-natured but highly competitive quality to their give-and-take, established early on when Linda, making note of Michael’s behavior, says: “There always has to be a game -- why is that?”

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Soon thereafter, Michael will say, in an aside to the audience: “A marriage, however good, is not a tell-all enterprise. It is a pact between necessary strangers.”

So, early on, we’re put on notice: Don’t entirely trust the veracity of anything these characters say or do. They are writers of fiction, after all, and, as Linda says when quoting a fellow writer: “The lies begin when we lift the pen.”

Predictably, the plot hinges on a presumed infidelity. The twist: The incident comes to light when, in a time of emotional duress, Linda invites her husband to read her private journals and requests that, in return, she be allowed to read his. As the action leaps back and forth in time, a third character, Abby Drake (Rachel Fowler), emerges from Michael’s journals to twine her secrets with the Watermans’.

For this presentation in the Old Globe’s intimate in-the-round Cassius Carter Centre Stage, the set has been reduced to a mere table and chairs. So the acting alone must hold the audience’s attention.

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Under Richard Seer’s unobtrusive but observant direction, the performers’ interplay is scintillating yet seemingly effortless. Rhoads uses his rough-hewn handsomeness to good advantage as he evokes the sort of guy who proves irresistibly appealing even as his every action broadcasts the message: Run for your life. A charmer with a big ego, he assumes women will be instantly smitten. If they aren’t, he craftily wears them into submission.

Williamson is his softer if no less manipulative counterpart. With her halo of frilly hair and aurora of lively conversation, she’s a Botticelli maiden come to life with razor-sharp intellect. That Rhoads and Williamson are married in real life serves to enhance countless unspoken bonds.

Fowler, meanwhile, is her own bundle of enticements and mysteries. With crinkle lines of suspicion around her eyes and a playful half-smile on her lips, she is as captivating as she is inscrutable.

In his mid-40s, the Seattle-based Dietz is a writer of many moods. The best known of his more than two dozen plays are “God’s Country,” a drama about the neo-Nazi movement, and “Lonely Planet,” a gentle allegory about bonds of friendship in the age of AIDS. Truth and trust -- recurring themes in such plays as “Trust” and “Private Eyes” -- reach fuller expression in “Fiction,” recently presented in New York by the Roundabout Theatre Company.

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The show begins breathlessly and snakes its way toward an ending that’s meant to be a surprise but, unfortunately, is entirely predictable to anyone who has seen that much more popular play about writers: Donald Margulies’ “Collected Stories.” Still, it sweeps along many in its audience, even as it leaves the rest of us to dismiss it as improbable fiction.

*

‘Fiction’

Where: The Old Globe, Cassius Carter Centre Stage, Balboa Park, San Diego

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When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays;

2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Oct. 31

Price: $19 to $55

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Contact: (619) 234-5623

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes


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