Denver native Steven Dietz has had eighteen plays produced--several of which even made it to Denver (notably, God's Country, The Lonely Planet and Trust). That distinguished career got another boost last week in Louisville, Kentucky, where Dietz's new play, Private Eyes, received its premiere at the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Local boy has really made good--though he's done better.
The Humana Festival is unique among theater festivals. Six new plays a year get the royal treatment: first-class productions, excellent casts and directors, and the attention of an international press that has been flying into Louisville for 21 years to take a look-see. The best and the brightest of the theater world--names like Joan Ackermann, Wendy Kesselman, Horton Foote and John Patrick Shanley--have received premieres there, so Dietz is in good company.
His new play is about suspicion and deception, among lovers and within the theater itself. Interviewed at the festival last week, Dietz says he got the idea for Private Eyes one day while he was traveling. He looked into an empty hotel room where the maid had not yet made up the bed and began to wonder about the lies told there the night before. He wanted, he says, to make a play in which spiraling lies told by the characters allow them to deceive each other--and allow the play to deceive the audience.
Dietz realized his concept by constructing a play that's built on shifting sands--numerous plays within plays that are sometimes filtered through the vivid imagination of his protagonist. Every time you think you know what is really going on in Private Eyes, the action changes focus, and you realize that what you've been watching is just an elaborate ruse. This stop-and-start storytelling, awash in alternate realities, is funny and stimulating, if none too profound.
The story begins with an audition. Lisa tries out for the part of a waitress and lies to director Matthew when he asks her if she has ever waitressed. She says she hasn't, and she doesn't get the part. And when he later goes out to a restaurant where she actually does waitress, he is refused his dinner. Her spunk charms him, however, and the two strike up a relationship. All of a sudden, though, we realize that this restaurant scene is really just part of another play--which becomes clear when the "real" director, Adrian, interrupts the action to give Lisa and Matthew acting notes.
Adrian asks Matthew (who's married to Lisa in "real" life) to leave the room, and we learn that Adrian and Lisa are having an affair. At least that's what we think until a minute later, when we see that Matthew has made up the scene between the lovers as part of a session with his therapist. Convolutions build as the play goes on, with one hilarious surprise following another in rapid succession and keeping the audience breathless. The dialogue rips along like good movie dialogue, full of amusing twists and turns and sprinkled with jokes made all the funnier when the tone suddenly turns serious.
The point of Dietz's story seems to be how hard it is for people to love each other, how easily lies can flow, and how difficult those lies are to untangle. The essential skepticism of the characters is underscored when Matthew exclaims to his therapist that no matter what his wife tells him, he won't believe her.
Dietz says he wants the play's title to be taken literally--in the sense that what you see isn't always what you get. "Can we in this day and age stand across from the person we love and honestly look them in the eye?" asks the playwright. "Seeing them--and letting yourself be seen--takes courage. It takes the courage of intimacy."
And Dietz isn't talking about sexual intimacy. Sex is easy enough to come by, he seems to suggest in Private Eyes, but emotional intimacy is another matter. Coming to the theater ought to be like coming to a relationship, says Dietz. In the safety of the theater, one can watch others work though their lives, then stop and consider one's own tangled web.
The show received the usual treatment from the Actors Theatre of Louisville last week--a fabulous cast including Lee Sellars, Kate Goehring, V Craig Heidenreich, Twyla Hafermann and Adale O'Brien--with Dietz in the director's chair. The playwright's presence as director at such a prestigious festival was unusual, to say the least. But it was a good choice for this show because, while each of the characters is well-defined, the whole play is meant to be experienced as the imagination of a single individual spinning (almost) out of control.
As lively as this well-made play is, though, it lacks something in wisdom. Dietz's core subject, after all, is quite serious--and though he raises plenty of questions about the meaning of love, he never comes to terms with it. It's as if he has recognized the diseased state of romantic relationships but, despite his vague hope that things will somehow work out, can offer no real cure.
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