THEATER | “Private Eyes” by Phoenix Theater Project: Is it wrong to enjoy a comedy about infidelity? (Nope, not when it’s this good)

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One thing you can count on with a Steven Dietz play is funny, clever dialogue. I’m normally jotting down witty lines of dialogue like a crazy man during really good plays to help me write the reviews. This play was so good even the friend who came with me to the theater got out his program and started jotting things down so he could remember them later. There is an abundance of laughs in Dietz’s Private Eyes, currently being presented by the Phoenix Theater Project. The added bonus that director Matt Rein and his talented band of actors bring to Dietz’s script is a generous helping of heart.

“Lie to everyone but me.”

Without that deep wellspring of emotion, Private Eyes might just be a multi-layered puzzle box of alternate realities. Thanks to the folks at Phoenix, we’re treated not just to jokes but to genuine relationships. Rather than being content to skim along the surface of the pretty words and intricate plotting, personal betrayals have real consequences here, as they should.

“You sit there and get paid to have opinions and you call that work?”

On the one hand, it’s hard to describe what Private Eyes is about without giving away surprises because just about every major plot point turns on a surprise. On the other hand, it’s hard to describe what Private Eyes is about because the notion of reality is very fluid in this world. Depending on who you talk to, or which character you latch onto as your guide, you could, for instance, make a strong argument that only the very last scene of the play takes place in our version of the real world. However, thanks to this cast, you can buy into  every level of reality along the way and not feel tricked or cheated when that reality gets turned inside out for another to take its place.

“Say your goodbyes, divide up your stuff, and run for your lives.”

On the surface, Private Eyes consists of a lot of things that make me feel like heading for the nearest exit. The primary red flag for me is the story being based firmly in the world of theater people. Normally nothing is less interesting to me than the offstage drama created by actors, directors and playwrights—real or imagined. It’s why I can’t stand The Seagull even though I’m otherwise a huge fan of Chekhov’s comedies. All the world may be a stage, but the stage isn’t the entire world.

“Through some combination of bloodshed and eloquence.”

But like the best “art about art,” Private Eyes is about characters who are human first and artists second. Theater is something they do, not the totality of who they are. Who the characters are is defined by their constantly evolving relationships with one another.  So who are they…?

“You’re married.  You know what a circus of neuroses it can be.”

Husband and wife actors Matthew (Adam Whisner) and Lisa (Amy Schweickhardt) are in rehearsals for a play about a married actress who embarks on an affair with her director. Coincidentally, or not coincidentally, Lisa is actually having an affair with the real life director of their play, Adrian (John Middleton). Matthew may or may not be in the dark about Lisa and Adrian’s affair. He may or may not be plotting revenge. He may or may not be sharing the details of all this with his therapist, Frank (Jim Pounds)—who may or may not actually be a therapist. A mysterious woman named Cory (Ingrid Moss) could be a waitress, or a detective, or revealed to be in a relationship with someone already bouncing around the cast of characters in an unexpected way. Or a combination of all three of these things.

“You’re a private investigator?”
“I prefer dick.”

At first the audience may spend their time trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not.  Or they may spend their time just laughing a lot. Slowly, however, you can’t help but be sucked in by these characters and the situations in which they find themselves. Mysteries and traps of their own designing, sure, but you feel for them. They’re making a mess of things, or trying to clean it up, trying to fix what they broke or pretend it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t matter. And of course it does. The only way this works is by the actors fully committing to whatever version of reality is currently on deck. And commit they do. Each member of the ensemble has a moment (or several) where the mask slips, and we see how much things mean to them, how deeply they can be hurt, how much they have to lose. It doesn’t stop being funny. It just stops being a joke.

“When a man hears that a woman is trouble, he doesn’t take that as a warning.  He takes that as a dare.”

I found myself longing to know more of Lisa’s side of the story. In Schweickhardt’s skillful hands, Lisa is a woman of great depth and consequence. But the way the play is constructed, Lisa is still seen almost exclusively through Matthew’s eyes. So you have to wonder whether we’re seeing her as more or less than what she truly is.  But that’s a credit to the actress, and the production as a whole, to leave me wanting more.  And I have to say I’ve rarely been as happy to come back from intermission to see the second half of the production.  The first act of Private Eyes was so funny, and nutty, and dangerously sexy, I couldn’t wait to find out what they were going to do next.  I was not disappointed, and I dare say you won’t be either. Catch it while you still can. Very highly recommended.