In the scene within the scene, Wattis plays a waitress who discovers her customer is a movie star, and we see her play it twice: once alone, then with Feldman providing the other lines of the conversation. Wattis and Feldman alternate between playing star-struck waitress and matinee idol on one level and eager actress and confrontational director on another.
And in the next scene, Feldman's director finds himself at lunch, surprised to be served by Wattis' actress, who relishes the opportunity to turn the tables: "Frankly, your eating doesn't work for me!" But is this a "real" moment or another play within the play? Private Eyes is one of those plays that can't leave reality alone, in which flashbacks contradict each other and any encounter might turn out to be a fantasy or piece of stagecraft. Essential Theatre offers a funny and confident production of Dietz's play, which folds realities so often that it feels increasingly inconsequential, despite its clever dialogue and social insights.
In the genuine article, Matthew (Feldman) and Lisa (Wattis) are actors married to each other and performing in a play directed by British Adrian (Brian Turner). We learn that Adrian and Lisa have finished carrying on a backstage affair, which Lisa suggests they reveal to Matthew now that it's over. Adrian objects, "Imagine a world in which people just needlessly confess -- it would be barbaric!" But cuckolded Matthew might know more than he's let on, and for a while he seems alternately oblivious and menacing.
The dynamic gets an additional wrinkle with the presence of Matthew's shrink (Thomas Liychik), whose introduction makes Deitz's script seem increasingly out of control. The therapist recalls telling Matthew at their first meeting, "I'm Frank -- I hope you'll be," a groan-inducing line that's just the tip of an iceberg of contrivance. Frank occasionally interrupts the action to lecture the audience on the nature of truth and fidelity, and though Liychik has no Viennese accent, the role plays like the surprise appearance of Sigmund Freud in a comedy sketch.
But Frank does give Matthew justification to recall or imagine important scenes, like Act Two's presentation of Lisa and Adrian's early flirtation. While Adrian had only come across as an unenthusiastic adulterer before, Turner gets to show the director as an eccentric, intense, would-be theater artiste who amuses and intrigues Lisa. Private Eyes, directed by David Crowe, proves a play about sex that still manages to be sexy. When Adrian boldly compliments married Lisa's neck, Wattis turns away, but brushes her hair back to offer a better view of her throat.
At times the characters played by Feldman, Wattis and Turner show very different traits, but it's a credit to the actors that this comes across not as inconsistency but as a way of showing different facets of the same people. Jill Perry provides some funny moments as Cory, a quirky young woman who may be a waitress or may be a private eye ("I prefer the term 'dick,'" she remarks), although she seems more like a fictional creation than one of the play's flesh-and-blood parts.
Dietz provides lots of snappy dialogue and some shrewd observations about passion and commitment. But it's difficult to view the play without thinking of older scripts that did similar tricks more successfully, like Betrayal's affair in reverse. And compared to Private Eyes, Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing seems like, well, the real thing, with adulterous theater people finding themselves playacting scenes that parallel the events of their lives.
As the play nears its resolution, the lines seem to grow more clunky -- Lisa asks Adrian, "I was, what, your heart-sitter?" -- and the action folds in on itself so much you throw up your hands in despair of figuring out what's real and who's who. At least the Essential Theatre cast and direction stay solid even as Private Eyes becomes frustratingly ethereal, and you can appreciate the intelligence of much of the play, even though Dietz seems to ultimately outsmart himself.
Private Eyes plays in repertory through Feb. 2 at the Essential Theatre's Festival of New American Theatre, PushPush Theater, 1123 Zonolite Road, Suite 3, with performances at 8 p.m. Wed.-Sat. and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. $15. 404-876-8471.
Little harsh, in'it?
Oh that's right...I DID say enjoy yourself.
Go to hell Kombo!
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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