By Michael H. Margolin
Shakespeare invented the convention that unites two lovers who carp and growl and insult one another, yet we know are in love. Think of Beatrice and Benedict and, of course, Petruchio who tames the shrewish Kate. Jane Austen covered the territory in “Pride and Prejudice.” Every romcom and sitcom since then, from Doris Day and Rock Hudson to today’s offshoots, have benefited from the Bard.
Steven Dietz uses the familiar tropes in his 2002 play, “Fiction,” the penultimate production in Tipping Point’s season: Walter and Linda meet cute in a cafe in Paris and they are off and running, hammering each other with dialogue of wit, cynicism and, yes, some laceration. (Albee and “Virginia Woolf” come to mind.)
The play kicks off at a high level and maintains that level to the very end, when the meet cute scene is repeated with a twist.
And so the lovers’ dance of death, denial and betrayal is enacted for us, a portrait of a couple at love and war with one another. Each is a writer and, in their turn, stays at a writer’s colony called Drake at which each meets, and ultimately betrays each other and the young woman, Abby, who is the worm in their apple, the one who pulls the final strings to tighten the plot.
Dietz uses words very well: The material he puts into his characters’ mouths comes out like honey and bee stings. Aphorisms fly from their mouths like moths from an old chest of unused bedding.
“If you could step outside your body and listen to your mouth…it would keep on talking” says Linda to Walter. Says Walter to Abby: “Do you know why they call movies a medium? Because they are neither rare or well done.”
Early in the play, Walter comments, half to us and half to Linda, “It seems to be raining hyperbole” and calls Abby an “art tart.”
The play weaves in and out of the present, the distant past, the current moment as it curves its way to a climax assisted by the reading of each other’s diaries that are filled with fantasy, half-truths and pure fiction. At times Linda and Walter talk to the audience and sometimes Linda is a professor, picking out her students, as if in the audience, sometimes mocking, often condescending. (“You, the one of indeterminate gender.”) The play exists, then, on different levels, bolstered by language and, of course, the performances.
As Walter and Linda Waterman (I cannot overlook the mischievous plume-pun of the authors’ last name) Aaron H. Alpern and Julia Glander (2010 Wilde Award winner) are both very fine, she keeping her anger near the surface most of the two acts, and he wallowing in his own bullshit. They hit their marks in interactive dialogue and monologue.
As Abby, Alysia Kolascz whom I admired in last season’s Blackbird Theatre production of “Equus” (Wilde Award nominee), serves as the cool riposte to the heat of the two central characters and delivers some nasty zingers of her own in a soft voice.
James R. Kuhl, once of the Purple Rose and producing artistic director of Tipping Point, directed. He has a knack for placing his actors into a working relationship with their set and the audience, conducting the play as if it were music, with rushes of energy ebbing and flowing, sudden crescendos and moments of quiet. (This quality has always been evident in Purple Rose productions and has been passed on to alumni, as seen here, for example, and at Williamston Theatre: Purple Rose has had a huge influence on acting and directing in Michigan.)
The set by Dennis Crawley is bare bones, but the good platform with its curl of steps is effective; Joel Klain’s lighting works to move us to different moments in time and space. Particularly effective were the fadeouts at the end of each act, with the backlighting picking out the actors in silhouette. Colleen Ryan-Peters’ costume design was less is more, cleverly giving Glander two different scarves to hug around herself, a good boho chic outfit for Kolascz, but a lackluster, nondescript outfit for Alpern.
Tipping Point cautions the audience that there is adult content and language in the play. The “f word” comes up a few times, there is talk of a rape, but otherwise any teen has heard worse in their school hallways. It is not offensive, just adult, truthful and often very funny.
Tipping Point Theatre, 361 E. Cady St., Northville, Thursday-Sunday through April 15. 105 minutes. $28-$30. 248-347-0003. http://www.tippingpointtheatre.com