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Eugene Weekly : Theater : 11.19.2009

 

Fast and Loose with Words

The hollow years of writers’ li(v)es

by Suzi Steffen

Writing’s not hard labor. Those of us who state with real passion, “Writing is hard,” don’t mean that it breaks down the body like working in a factory or challenges the emotions, body and mind with a world of caprice like farming an uncertain land. No: The difficulties of writing lie within, and from where they lie, they make writers lie.

Awkward! Abby Drake (Ellen Chance) meets with Michael (Dan Pegoda) and Linda (Mary Buss) Waterman

Or so it goes in the Lord Lebrick production of Steven Dietz’s Fiction, which seems to worship at the feet of Lillian Hellman — or at least at the feet of Mary McCarthy’s famous trashing of Hellman: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”

Fiction is blessed with a Eugene dream cast, a strong director and a fine set. Dietz has been well-praised for his writing; the man can pen wordplay and half-boasting, half-humbled dialogue with rapier skill. I’ve no doubt this script reads beautifully on the page. 

Two of Eugene’s best actors, Dan Pegoda (playing Michael Waterman) and Mary Buss (playing Linda Waterman), give Dietz’s many, swift words their all. The play begins in Paris, where Linda and Michael argue passionately about the greatest rock song ever (I call bullshit on Michael’s choice, but that could be because my generation knows it mostly from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Oh, do they argue well. 

About 20 years later in their lives and a few minutes later in the play, as they’re still sparring, the well-off, uncharmingly self-satisfied Waterman pair discover that Linda’s got an unusually pernicious brain tumor and will die within three weeks. They’re successful writers, though Linda’s done nothing of note since her first book, At the Cape, and Michael writes some sort of pop fiction that he knows serves as a mere sketch of screenplays to come. The literary writing? That stays in his journals. The dying Linda wants Michael to read her journals when she’s gone, and she wants to read his. Now.

Both sets of journals revolve around Abby Drake (Ellen Chace), one of the adminstrators of a writers’ retreat. She first hosts Linda, and then, a couple of years later, Michael; that’s all long ago, before each became famous, but we see the flashbacks. As a good administrator, Drake knows how to get her writers working when they feel too dry. Writers with too little time don’t have the intellectual and emotional space to conceive of large ideas or to write lengthy narratives, but writers with too much time — as any fellowship recipient in an MFA program can attest — might just fall off the edge of the planet. Abby Drake’s job, which she does quite well, is not to let that happen.

Chace, as someone behind me awkwardly said to director Joseph Gilg during intermission, is a bit too mature for the part, with an internal authority and a sense of calm self-awareness that her character could never have during the time period covered in the play. But with skill and determination, Chace wills her way into the character, more successfully into the interactions with Pegoda than those with Buss. Part of the problem is in her costumes — she needs sexier clothes to create the intensity of connection she shares with each writer. 

What does each Waterman take from the encounter with this spark? How is Abby reflected in the journals? Both results revolve around betrayals that don’t fully exist, things that possibly never happened or were never intended to look the way they do now. These are the stories, the fictions Michael and Linda tell about themselves even when they’ve got their pens raised only to their diaries. Something that looks like revenge really isn’t; asked-for forgiveness was never necessary in the first place; and Michael is left burdened with the lies he told and the lies he was told.

Michael and Linda argue like characters. Their words tumble out with asperity, alacrity and certainty. Their comfortable lives have no edges; the stories they tell during the two hours of the play have no consequence in the wider world. Pegoda imbues Michael — early on, a real prick in the way of many insecure young novelists — with some kind of earned humanity; Buss thankfully gives Linda more bite than the character contains. Audiences eat up their wordplay, but their literary games and secrets fall flat. Still, the brain loves a puzzle; the brain loves rapidfire interaction; the brain, if not the heart, loves a Fiction.

Fiction runs through Nov. 5 at the Lord Leebrick. Tix at lordleebrick.com or 465-1506.