Undress Rehearsal

In an example of last-minute housecleaning before the February ratings sweeps began, ABC network executives pulled the plug on the cop drama Cracker. While I liked the few episodes I saw about the raffish psychologist who solves homicides, I'm glad it's gone. One of the series' writers, Steven Dietz, doesn't belong on TV; he belongs back in the theater. And his play Private Eyes, which is being performed at Manalapan's Florida Stage, is proof.

Dietz's work was first presented on local stages in 1995, when Florida Stage presented the regional premiere of his off-Broadway play Lonely Planet. Aside from having written more than half a dozen plays, Dietz also adapts works, including Bram Stoker's Dracula, which was recently produced at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. In 1997 he garnered national attention when Private Eyes was presented as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays, which draws the theatrical world's movers and shakers to the Actors Theatre of Louisville each season.

In fact Dietz first began working on Private Eyes in a hotel room in Louisville years ago, according to the author's program note. In the same note, he reveals the origin of the play's title and points up, indirectly, the play's major flaw. The inspiration for the play, he writes, was a scene in which two lovers lie to each other until, ultimately, they are left with the "low-level panic of two people, alone, looking into each other's eyes, with nowhere to run." He continues: "And, like a lie, the play grew.... It took my sense of structure for a ride and built a web of such complexity that clarity (a.k.a. 'truth') was rendered virtually impossible."

He's not kidding. In this tale of marital infidelity, nothing is what it seems. Yet the play's twists and turns, which often render it maddeningly confusing, also provide audiences with a slam-bang roller coaster ride.

Describing too much of the plot would spoil things, but some of it can safely be revealed. Neurotic Matthew (J.C. Cutler) and his pretty wife, Lisa (Kimberly Kay), are actors who are rehearsing a new production with their British director, Adrian (Bob Rogerson). Recently separated from his wife, Adrian has arrived in an unnamed city to make his American theater debut. He's also having an affair with Lisa, which is carried on during private rehearsal sessions, from which Matthew is excluded. Matthew suspects something, but because his wife is an actress, he can't be sure when she's lying.

Likewise playwright Dietz delights in fooling the audience by making the most of Private Eyes' theatrical setting. By playing around with the concept of time, for example, he juxtaposes Matthew and Lisa's early days together with moments of betrayal. And at times the events in their lives are played out as part of the production they're rehearsing. This play-within-a-play device is used as a springboard, which sends linear structure flying in scenes that, in some cases, turn out to be mere rehearsals or even fantasies.

A fascinating mind game, the fast-paced play is peppered with snappy dialogue and dramatic moments that hook you even when it's unclear exactly what's going on. Matthew's shrink, Frank (Claudia Robinson), who happens to be a woman, tries to help her patient -- and us -- keep things straight. "I'm Frank," she says, "and I hope you'll be also." She's also the only character who addresses the audience directly. She tosses out asides like lifelines, coming to the audience's rescue and quickly establishing herself as the only character we can trust, much like Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone.

Even Frank, however, can't explain the unexpected appearances of a woman named Cory (Rose Stockton), who keeps showing up in Matthew's life in a variety of guises and accents. She pops up first as a hip downtown waitress and later as a gun-toting private eye. Stockton adds the needed offbeat touch to Dietz's fooled-you-again riddle, playing the woman of mystery with a comic quirkiness.

"Passion and suspicion are twin fevers," Frank notes at one point. But suspicion quickly overtakes passion in Private Eyes, turning the play into a giant jigsaw puzzle. The kick comes from figuring out what's real and how the pieces interlock.

Much to its credit, Private Eyes' cagey design team doesn't provide any help. Made up of brick walls, iron columns, and metal folding tables, Michael Amico's set transforms seamlessly into a rehearsal hall, a psychiatrist's office, a hotel room, and a trendy restaurant. Just as noncommittal are Jim Fulton's lighting, Erin Stearns Amico's costumes, and David Pair's sound design; by staying in the background, they refuse to comment on the action. Together they make for the perfect game board for Dietz's characters.

The big question here is whether or not Private Eyes has a heart. As Matthew's and Lisa's motives change with each scene, the characters become less sympathetic and less understood. Indeed Dietz's fractured riffs on love and jealousy are no more linear than the latest music video. Consequently his play comes very close to being just a clever collection of comic sketches that are only slightly connected to each other.

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