When Capital Playhouse board members described Fiction at the start of their season, it looked right up my alley: it's a straight (i.e., non-musical) play about a writer who lies even while writing his own diary, and whose sins are exposed at the worst possible moment. Then, when I learned the Kapplers and Tyrrells were involved, I got even more excited. These are fine theater professionals with long, successful résumés. I expected a slam dunk. So imagine my disappointment when I realized Fiction simply doesn't work. It's not for lack of trying or lack of talent, but it feels like - please indulge me in a writerly phrase - a densely ornate mansion sagging into ruins under its own weight.
Brian Tyrrell both co-directs (with Peter Kappler) and stars as Michael, an author who never met a truth he couldn't obfuscate, contradict or just plain ignore. Brian's wife, Jana Tyrell, plays Michael's wife, Linda. Linda's just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. That's no spoiler; Linda will either be or not be about to die as the playwright's whim requires. She looks healthy through every arbitrary plot revelation. She's the Schrödinger's cat of contemporary drama.
Playwright Steven Dietz devises pithy lines to shove in his characters' mouths, to be sure. It's his play's greatest strength. "I don't like to write," Michael moans, "only to have written." As an author myself, I'd say that feels about right. But unlike any writer I ever met in real life, Michael lies all the time, even when he's not writing. The authors I've known have been characterized by dispassionate, even brutal honesty whenever they weren't being paid to prevaricate.
Dietz wastes no opportunity to remind us these characters are more verbally ingenious than we are. Like most writers who aren't Stephenie Meyer, Michael's justly proud of his expansive vocabulary, but Tyrrell's actors (especially Tyrrell himself) struggle with all that verbosity. (I caught mispronunciations of apocope and Soweto.) We writers are often accused of using language to put on airs when the truth is, those polysyllabic words just occur to us first. Writers love English. But we never get the sense these actors are at ease speaking Dietz's dialogue; the opening night performance looked to me as if extremely talented actors were in one of their first rehearsals off book, before character relationships are fleshed out or inner process becomes interaction. We're reminded there's a thin line between stylized and stilted.
There's also a razor's edge between "untrustworthy narrators" and untrustworthy people, a border this script crosses many times. I found myself depressed rather than charmed by its characters' foibles. But the worst sin Fiction commits, and it's a fault at both script and production levels, is that it's ... well ... boring. Yes, there's the cerebral appeal of taking in the language and predicting the end of Dietz's two-track timeline, but his characters are so detached from each other that we detach from them, too. Megan Kappler, who plays Michael's "other woman," emerges largely unscathed, mostly by virtue of reduced stage time rather than visible excitement.
Gene Siskel famously said one characteristic of a bad movie is that you'd rather watch its actors conversing around the craft services table than performing its dialogue. That's Fiction in a nutshell.
[Capital Playhouse, Fiction, through April 22, 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, $28-$35, 612 E. Fourth Ave., Olympia, 360.943.2744]
Stage & Visual Reviews