Private Eyes is a very smart play. For a while I tormented myself trying to decipher the plot, but I couldn't do it. Some critics have compared the story to a set of nested Russian figures, but I think it's more like a drawing by M.C. Escher. An event makes perfect sense, then it doesn't; you figure out precisely what playwright Steven Dietz is doing, then the insight's gone. Oh, of course, you mutter to yourself -- and then the stairway is spiraling away in impossible patterns, and off you go into the ether again.
But you don't need to find a linear sequence in order to enjoy the events unfolding on stage, the witty language that keeps promising and withholding meaning, the back-and-forth tango of accusation and counter-accusation -- which is concretized by a real tango performed by two dancers between scenes.
An actress named Lisa is auditioning for a director, Matthew. Script in hand, she tries a scene in which she's waiting on tables in a restaurant, her customers represented by empty chairs. She's curt with a dilatory customer until she realizes he's a famous director and then gushes helplessly. Matthew seems unimpressed with her performance. He and Lisa spar. He wants to know if she's ever worked as a waitress and, after some evasion, she says she hasn't. But when he goes out for lunch, who should approach his table to take the order but Lisa. Ah-ha.
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"Cut," says someone. It's Adrian, the real director, a pompous British fellow. Matthew and Lisa, it turns out, are both actors -- married, in fact -- and they're working for him. Lisa's shtupping him, too. You see them conspiring, discussing how to break the news to Matthew. But then Matthew's with his therapist, Frank, and you realize that everything you've seen represents his memory of what happened among the members of the triangle -- which may or may not be accurate. And what of Cory, a very strange waitress/private investigator (or "dick," as she insists)/wronged wife who keeps inserting herself into the action?
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All of these people play out their own dances of attraction and repulsion, jealousy and love; all maintain themselves at a fever pitch -- the fever of attraction, the fever of betrayal. Certain lines get repeated -- "Lie to everyone except me"; "We've done our work, let's eat" -- and you assume they're significant. There are arguments about whether it's best to tell the truth slowly or all at once; observations about the regrettable fact that longtime lovers can only keep their relationship fresh and surprising through cruelty; in-jokes about the annoying things theater directors say to actors; speeches that seem sincere and turn out to be performances; performances that also turn out to be performances; moments when Frank addresses the audience directly, though he may just be auditioning. For Matthew? For Adrian? Or perhaps he's serving as a mouthpiece for the playwright, who wants to comment on the role of the narrator in theater.
In this Miners Alley production, Shannon Zimmerman's Lisa is charming. Robert Kramer is convincing as a pretentious Adrian, though his performance is markedly lacking in passion. Theresa Adams's pouting, posturing Cory adds vitality and intensity to the production, and Robert Olguin makes us sympathize with poor, ruffled, beleaguered Matthew. Did playwright Dietz mean Lisa to be a rather lightweight character -- as she's presented here -- and Cory representational rather than realistic? Did he envision a Frank whose constant smiling good humor hints at either madness or a huge joke that only he can see? I have no idea, but the combination of talents put together by director Terry Dodd works.
Private Eyes left an odd vacuum in my memory: A day or so after I'd seen it, I could barely remember a moment, line or image. But when an evening of theater provides the dizzy pleasure and delight you experience on a first-rate carnival ride, why complain?
Although Dietz grew up here, we haven't seen a great deal of his work in Denver -- with the exception of Curious's evocative production of Inventing Van Gogh a couple of years ago. But Curious is mounting another Dietz play, Fiction, in May, and the Denver Center Theatre Company's Kent Thompson has commissioned a piece for the Colorado New Play Summit, so local audiences will have plenty of opportunities to try to figure him out.