This Is Fiction
nytheatre.com review by Cory Conley
June 14, 2012
Megan Hart's This Is Fiction, at the Cherry Lane Studio, is a sight both rare and pleasing: a thoughtful play that's as digestible as a cup of tea. Its best quality, without a doubt, is its believability: you'll believe the characters, the story, even the set (by Lauren Helpern). The only thing you probably won't believe is that, according to the program, This Is Fiction is Hart's first full-length play.
We begin in a coffee shop with Amy, who enters from the pouring rain to stumble across Ed, an innocuous teacher who almost immediately offers to buy her a cup. Amy has just walked out of a meeting about her new novel, "We Live on Perfect Street," and as Amy and Ed get to talking, we realize there's something a bit off about her. By the next scene, we've followed Amy to Central Jersey, meeting her sister Celia and father David, both of whom are surprised to see her, and in Celia's case, more than a little suspicious. Rightly so: Perfect Street, it turns out, is an actual place, with lots of memories, and Amy's novel is not, strictly speaking, a work of fiction.
In a broad sense, the setup recalls that of Other Desert Cities, Jon Robin Baitz's recent Broadway melodrama, which also features a daughter who must tell her family about an unflattering book of secrets that's about to be thrust into the world. But This Is Fiction does not have (or intend to have) the pathos or the political undercurrents of its predecessor. Nothing is meant to push your thoughts to the outer world. Instead, Hart's drama runs on a low-key, domestic intimacy that pulls you further and further in, until you sit up and realize you care very much about what happens to this family.
Hart has a sensitive ear for dialogue, especially between the two sisters. (When one says "I hate you," the other replies, "no you don't, and the feeling is mutual.") Like any confident writer, she uses small arguments to prompt larger conflicts, so that Celia's rant about the difference between soy sauce and dumpling sauce (yes, there is a difference, and you should care) turns into a bitter interrogation of Amy's motives in coming home. Objects always matter in a play as focused as this, and this one is full of them.
Michelle David, as Celia, toggles back and forth between irritation and warmth with startling finesse. She fully embodies the sort of woman who knows exactly what she means, all the time, and yet is helpless against life's major challenges. Veteran film actor Richard Masur, meanwhile, is such an expert on the timing required for his mostly comic "hapless dad" role that he seems to glide through without a sweat, and his attitude in the inevitable heart-to-heart scene between father and daughter is everything it should be.
Bernardo Cubria is spot-on as Ed, who finds it nearly impossible to be discourteous, even when put in the most undignified of positions, as he is, repeatedly. (The costume design, by Ashley Gardner, is particularly smart when it comes to Ed's simple-but-slovenly style.) Paradoxically, perhaps, Aubyn Philabaum has the least dramatic meat to work with as the heroine, Amy, because her task is to light the proverbial match and then watch everyone else react to the fire. But she shines anyway, most brightly in a neurotic story about stealing.
This Is Fiction is the type of small, subtle play that there should be a dozen of every season, but there never is. That's because it's hard work, and it requires the collaboration of many talented artists serving under the careful leadership of a director like Shelley Butler, whose achievement here is large. One must hope for much more to come from The InViolet Repertory Theater Company.
"Most people are miserable. Most people are terrified. You're not the only one," says Ed, in the kitchen on Perfect Street. Technically, he's talking about something else, but if there's a better summation of the reason why we go to theater, I haven't heard it.