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|A CurtainUp Review
How nice . . . to be able to launch the summer '98 review season by singing the praises of a thoroughly entertaining trip taken with people who, caught in the grip of the twin fevers of passionate love and perverse suspicion, spin back and forth between reality and illusion. Seattle playwright Steven Dietz, while prolific, widely produced and much praised, is best known via the regional theater circuit. In case you're unfamiliar with his work, you'll be thanking Shakespeare & Company for bringing Private Eyes, which premiered last year at the prestigious Humana Festival in Kentucky, to the Berkshires.
It has as many layers as an onion and as each layer is peeled away you think you know what's going on in the minds and lives of its characters -- until the next layer is shed and you realize you know less. To borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill what we have is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. It's a funny riddle -- as in chuckfull of laughs funny. Yet bubbling beneath the farcical film noire sensibility are enough serious ideas about the perilous power of suspicion and the sobering aspects of confronting truth to engage your heart and mind.
The convoluted twists and turns are framed within the context of a play within a play. It begins with Lisa (Ariel Bock) auditioning for a role as a waitress. Her interaction with Matthew (Jonathan Epstein) the director is cryptic and evasive, the sort of power play that reminded me of the trio of connected plays about this subject seen just a few days earlier in New York (see link at end). He won't tell her what he wants, she denies having any waitressing experience.won't tell him that she actually is a waitress. Yet in their next meeting, (in a restaurant) she is a waitress (albeit one claiming that she's a writer whose subject is depression -- not the historical kind, but her personal state of mind). This being her turf, she's also now the one in control -- until the real director (Malcolm Ingram) steps in and we discover that Lisa and Matthew are married and have been rehearsing a play about (what else?) marital infidelity.
I won't go on but you've probably got the idea that even though the play features a Private Eye (Julie Nelson), you as an audience member had best look sharp to figure out what's real and what isn't, to sift the truth (which Matthew at one point declares to be "air") from the lies and deceptions. The scenes following that initial audition and restaurant scene gallop along until "push comes to shout" , with dialogue that fairly snaps and crackles with humor -- and, yes, pain.
To add to the deliciously consistent confusion, there's Frank (Robert D. Lohbauer) who turns out to be both Lisa and Matthew's therapist and Corey a chamelonic waitress and/or Private Eye. Both these characters illustrate the playwright's gift for metaphoric word play: In introducing himself to Matthew during their first session, the therapist says "I'm Frank" to which Matthew replies "I hope you are. . ." Corey's name is an allusion to her stormy impact on the state of affairs (no pun intended, but. . .).
The actors playing these complex characters couldn't be better at investing their parts with all the nuances and precise timing the script demands. They handle their line readings of the frequent repeat sequences without a memory stumble. Jonathan Epstein's Matthew is amusing yet torn. His impeccable timing and diction make one anticipate his Shylock scheduled for later in the season. Ariel Bock deftly navigates a variety of moods and Malcolm Ingram has the grandiose and controlling British director down pat. Julie Nelson handles her double persona as brunette waitress and red-haired "Dick" (as she prefers to be called) with panache while Robert D. Lohbauer is appropriately low key as the therapist who, like everyone else has his own agenda.
The set, such as it is, consists of a few tables and chairs with two grips dressed as hotel maids efficiently creating a bed for the lovers and a few bits of business such as two paper party hats used to transform Matthew into a clown like cuckold. As with many productions in this living room theater, the stagecraft is largely a case of making something out of practically nothing .
While Private Eyes would no doubt be fun to see with more elaborate production values, seeing it in the very special intimacy of the Wharton Theater more than compensates for the bare bones approach dictated by the space. The fact that the actors are virtually within touching distance so that they can look you right in the eye underscores the play's underlying theme that people though intimately connected often lack the courage to look deep and honestly into each other's eyes. It gives this fine play the same sort of intimate edge that made last summer's Shakespeare & Company revival of Harold Pinter's Betrayal a similarly special and memorable experience.
LINKS TO OTHER PLAYS MENTIONED: