Under the Covers

Offering a postmodern slant on the ancient intricacies of love and betrayal, Steven Dietz's Private Eyes opens the season for the Aurora Fox Theatre. A two-hour comedy about a love triangle involving a stage director, an actress and her jack-of-theater-trades husband, the story is framed by a play-within-a-play structure that highlights the popular themes of truth and illusion. Sometimes all five characters resemble partially drawn cartoon characters who, frustrated by the ubiquitous unseen presence of their animator's poised-to-revise pen, seem intent on staging an impromptu revolt on their sketch-pad stage. Under director David Payne's steady hand, however, what initially appears to be a series of amorphous, disjointed ramblings about art, beauty and truth eventually takes shape as a jazz-like essay about deceit, suspicion and lies.

Set in a nameless American city that appears to be New York, the play begins as Matthew (Dan O'Neill) conducts auditions for his new play. An actress, Lisa (Trina Magness), enters and reads a few lines of dialogue for him. Certain that his dramatic omniscience will rub off on Lisa in untold creative ways, the pretentious Matthew guides the fledgling starlet through the finer points of his insipid script, then abruptly dismisses her. In the scene that follows, Matthew sits down at a table in a restaurant where Lisa works. They resume their banter and decide to sleep together. Just as they exit, we hear the voice of a British director, Adrian (Joe Miller), who enters from the Fox's auditorium. Seems that much of what we've been watching--though not necessarily all of it--has been a rehearsal for another play. And that Matthew and Lisa are a real-life husband-and-wife team whose marriage is about to undergo a serious test when Lisa becomes romantically involved with Adrian. We're also introduced to a wacky waitress-turned-private-investigator, Cory (Terri Enders-Miller), who's not all she's cracked up to be: Briefly climbing in off the imaginary window ledge of her teetering existence, she coolly and poetically says to a distraught Matthew, "Our lives are changed in distant rooms, without a word or our consent."

Of course, that particularly pithy remark might not actually have been uttered. It could be, as with most anything else in the play, a result of Matthew's tendency to apply a liberal artistic license to his memory of events. Or so suggests Matthew's therapist, Frank (Jim Hunt), who serves as a seemingly objective interlocutor for the onstage action, only to reveal his own creative angst at play's end. After guiding us (as well as the characters) through the play's many levels of reality, the helpful shrink eventually draws an interesting parallel between his years of involvement with psychological and emotional manipulation and Matthew's work in the theater.

Director Payne implements several musical styles to prop up the play's free-form construction. During one interlude, for instance, the use of overlapping styles and story lines is echoed by a jazz trumpeter's take on the French horn solo at the center of the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. At other times, the musical bridges are more literal, such as the appropriately placed "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby" and the Act Two curtain-raiser, "Fever."

And for the most part, Payne's actors are a formidable ensemble, punctuating their exchanges of dialogue with knowing glances and sexually charged body language that often revive a scene that's strayed into the deep end of the "no-one-really-understands-the-true-me" pool. Magness is alluring as the femme fatale who is equal parts architect and victim of the mess she makes of her life. Miller combines his character's swarthy earthiness with a near-foppish self-absorption (his streaked blond hair looks as if it's only halfway through a makeup call for Rent), artfully negotiating the border between vanity and genius that Lisa evidently finds attractive. As the thrice-split personality Cory, Enders-Miller is a delight in her different getups, which alternate between waitress togs and a short red leather dress; her go-go dance with O'Neill atop a restaurant cart during Act One is one of the production's more bizarre yet enjoyable moments. And although O'Neill permits Matthew to lapse into extended episodes of self-pity, his last scene with Magness is right on target: After all of the muck each character has slogged through, the play takes a stark, simple look at bare human truth in the show's final moments--with yet another surprising, gratifying twist.

Ironically, on the Fox's opening night, a few audience members expressed disappointment that they'd somehow mistaken the title of Dietz's play for Noel Coward's 1930 comedy of manners, Private Lives. And while the style of Coward's play about life behind closed doors is far different from either Dietz's or Schnitzler's, such a Freudian slip seems entirely in keeping with an ongoing theatrical fixation that, as Coward himself once noted, is here to stay.

La Ronde, presented by Way of the World Productions through October 24 at the Acoma Center, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524. Private Eyes, through October 24 at the Aurora Fox Theatre, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, 303-361-2910.

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