The title of Steven Dietz's new play, about two authors who come to admit that their perfect marriage is based on lies, is both a tipoff that the truth of this play is not what it seems and the playwright's convenient cover for the fact that his characters are unreal.

The title of Steven Dietz’s new play, about two authors who come to admit that their perfect marriage is based on lies, is both a tipoff that the truth of this play is not what it seems and the playwright’s convenient cover for the fact that his characters are unreal. Dietz writes smart dialogue in the “I know what you’re going to say before you say it” idiom of marital discourse, and Julie White and Tom Irwin carry off even the lamest literary jokes without a shrug. But the production style gives the game away. This literary household is bereft of the usual appurtenances of the literary life (including books) and the fragmented set keeps characters at a distance. Whatever they say, don’t believe a word these emotional castaways write.

The storyline is certainly intriguing. Michael and Linda are bestselling authors who, after 20 years of marriage, have learned to live with each other’s demons. He despises himself for being a fabulously successful hack; she’s been blocked since writing her acclaimed first novel. But when Linda discovers she has only three weeks to live, she gives Michael her diaries and requests his in return.

During this reading marathon, the play keeps flashing back to scenes at a writers’ retreat where a younger, more insecure Michael begins a long-term affair with a bright young thing called Abby. (“That lethal combination of beauty, danger, youth and wit,” as Michael describes her in his journals.) Written by rote and played by Emily Bergl with every indication that she knows her character is straight out of a middle-aged man’s fantasies, clever Abby is so unlikely to fall for Michael’s buffoonish seduction line that the audience knows long before Linda does that something is off about this affair.

Michael’s belated claim that the journal entries about Abby are merely his attempt at “artistic” writing, along with subsequent revelations about Linda and Abby, are intended to provoke thought about the truth of fiction and the fictions that pass for truth in real life. But one unlikely turn of events leads to another, abandoning all three performers to flounder like the survivors of a shipwreck as they try to cling to some character credibility.

Helmer David Warren’s approach is to more or less close his eyes to the behavioral inconsistencies and punch up the professional chit-chat about writers and writing.

White, who has Linda’s wittier lines to deliver, has an easier cruise of it. (“If you wanted somebody exciting,” she tells Michael, “you should have married Plath or Nin.”) Irwin, who is stuck with Michael’s more platitudinous thoughts, has a tougher time. (“I didn’t want to write; I wanted to have written.”)

But even when Warren’s tick-tock timing succeeds in making the literary banter sound less glib than it is, the play’s jerrybuilt construction tips the author’s manipulative hand. If one were to pull out one leg of the plot — if Michael had behaved responsibly and told his dying wife that his journals were fiction, or if Abby had behaved like a normal person and tossed Michael on his ear — the whole thing would collapse.

Why? Because beyond fact and fiction, there’s still something called truth.

Fiction

Laura Pels Theater; 420 seats; $61.25 top

Production

A Roundabout Theater Co. presentation of a play in two acts, originally produced by the McCarter Theater, by Steven Dietz. Directed by David Warren.

Creative

Sets, James Youmans; costumes, David C. Woolard; lighting, Jeff Croiter; sound, John Gromada; production stage manager, Jay Adler. Roundabout artistic director, Todd Haimes. McCarter artistic director, Emily Mann. Opened July 25, 2004. Reviewed July 24. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Linda - Julie White Michael - Tom Irwin Abby - Emily Bergl
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