Anyone who craves serious comedy—meaning humor leavened with wit and more than a dash of malice—will rejoice over Silver Spring Stage’s production of Private Eyes by Steven Dietz. The play was originally described by its author as a ‘comedy of suspicion,’ one in which everyone suspects everyone else of something. Mostly it’s infidelity, but just who knows what about whom is never clear.
The action begins, innocuously enough, with a young actress, Lisa (Caity Brown), auditioning for a role as a waitress in a new play. But the audition is not what it seems. It’s for a part in a play-within-the-play. The arrogant director, Matthew (Noah Rich), is in fact the husband of Lisa, a real waitress who is bent on revenge.
But that scene, staged in a restaurant, is also a play-within-a-play. Matthew and Lisa are both puppets in the hands of a wily director, Adrian (Jeff Breslow), who uses his plummy British accent and preference for tea to lure the adoring ingénue into his lunchtime retreat. Adrian, with his greasy hair, shaggy sweater and British pretentiousness, is a perfect foil for the starry-eyed young woman.
Matthew, stripped of both his director’s role and his wife, faces his therapist, aptly named Frank (Leta Hall), who demands honesty. Matthew demurs. “Truth is disruptive,” he says.
At the restaurant, to which he retreats whenever he’s banished from the stage, he meets Cory (Julia Morrisey), who may or may not be another waitress. Cory, who wears incredible wigs, may also be a private eye in a waggish disguise.
All the actors, whether in guise or disguise, give outstanding performances. Some of the most astonishing are those of Lisa and Matthew, who switch in and out of the roles their characters are playing to themselves, or what seems to be themselves. Matthew’s fall, from the power of a god-like director to the weakness of a cheated spouse, is particularly remarkable. Lisa’s character goes from a wobbly would-be waitress to a real one, and from shy maiden to sex kitten.
Adrian is hilarious as the adulterous director. He oozes seductive charm. Frank, the therapist, seems above it all, her mannish suits shouting professionalism as she mandates honesty. Matthew, meanwhile, cringes rather than face confrontation.
As for Cory, she’s the joker in the deck. A wild card, she’s a plausible waitress and a wildly funny Sam Spade of a detective, slouching around the set and sniffing out errant spouses.
This is a play in which everyone lies. Even Frank, the brutally truth-focused therapist, lies occasionally. The levels of deceit are dizzying, and the versions of what might have happened are increasingly wild.
So what does actually happen? That’s the real thriller here, thanks to the direction of Jeff Mikoni, who also produced the sound design, and Kristen Skolnik, the Stage Manager. Their efforts—combined with those of Maggie Modig (Set Design), Tony Bishop (Lighting Design), Vanessa Terzaghi (Costume Design) and an ensemble of stagecraft wizards who transform the stage back and forth from rehearsal hall to restaurant—conspire to keep us, as well as Matthew and Lisa, mystified to the end.
The transformation of sets—from the rehearsal space with its empty chair to the restaurant, the therapist’s office and a bedroom tucked behind closed doors—is accomplished mainly through the use of lighting and the addition of table cloths and screens. At one point, a bed appears with our lovers in it.
Like the play itself, the sets suggest a sort of sleight of hand—’now you see it, now you don’t’—while light and sound facilitate the magic, moving the action, and the audience, from one realm into another.
Steven Dietz, who wrote this play nearly 20 years ago, has described it as homage to Tom Stoppard, whose mind-bending play The Real Thing was first produced in 1982. There are nods to Shakespeare, Moliere and Lewis Carroll too.
No matter what it’s lineage or derivation, however, Private Eyes is the author’s most commercially successful play, with performances—mostly at regional theaters—scheduled constantly around the world.
Local audiences are lucky to have this highly entertaining production of Private Eyes playing at Silver Spring Stage. Let me give you an important clue: you don’t want to miss it!
Running Time: Two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.
Private Eyes plays through October 10, 2015 at Silver Spring Stage – 10145 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD, in the Woodmoor Shopping Center. For tickets, purchase them at the box office, or online.