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Monday, November 03, 2014

The Play Within

ALFRED HITCHCOCK FAMOUSLY TOLD Francois Truffaut that he regretted the flashback he put in the movie “Stage Fright.” It showed an incident one of the characters was describing, but the character was lying. As Hitchcock discovered, it left audiences feeling betrayed.

Caroline Calkins, Elizabeth 'Lily' Cardaropoli,
Marcus Kearns, and Luke Reed.
Photo by Enrico Spada.
The play “Private Eyes” has stories to tell – stories that usurp one another and contradict one another even as they build on one another in pursuit of the elusive concept called “truth.” It’s set in the world of theater – giving us theater within a theater, in other words – in which what’s played out in the play-within-a-play can return as the action of the play itself. (Not surprisingly, “Stage Fright” also is set in the theater world.)

It’s a relatively light-hearted romp, with the issue of marital infidelity at its core. Matthew and Lisa are actors who are married to one another, although the opening scene gives us Matthew auditioning Lisa, as if she’s a stranger. Luke Reed and Caroline Calkins portray the couple, and it’s a credit to their acting skill (and direction by Jonathan Croy) that the plausibility and complexity of their relationship deepens as the script’s many reversals begin to kick in.

Beginning with a shout from the guy sitting next to me. He turned out to be an actor (Marcus Kearns) playing the role of Adrian, a director. The audition is part of the script he’s directing. And Adrian is having an affair with Lisa.

The unreliable narrator has been part of entertainment at least as far back as Plautus, although it was only named as such in the 1960s. In a work of fiction, the reader typically develops a sustained relationship with said narrator; a stage work like this gives us no single narrator to mistrust, although Matthew does present us with a couple of fully-enacted whoppers that turn out to be fanciful stories with which he’s trying to impress his therapist, Frank (Lori Evans).

When Adrian emerges from the house seats, the audience should be aware of its own complicity in the complicated relationship between perceived truth and apparent lies. I suspect there are as many different opinions about that as there are audience members – certainly my wife and I failed to agree on an attitude towards the play’s deceptiveness, with me the one taking more exception to the number of reversals and revelations. She was enchanted by the journey.

And there’s plenty of reason to be. Kearns’s Adrian is wonderfully arrogant – Lisa begins their affair by calling him a prick – but is moved and even humbled by the strength of the marriage. Evans plays Frank (Frank Lee, in fact) as a no-nonsense therapist with sympathetic colors. It’s Lily Cardaropoli, as the protean Cory, who has the greatest challenge in finding depth to her characterization, as Cory’s few appearances are the archetypical stuff of detective noir.

Set designers Patrick Brennan and Devon Drohan establish a variety of playing areas in the Bernstein Theatre with the use of a folding backdrop that contains a callboard for the theater scenes, a set of Rorschach prints for the shrink’s office, and a Murphy bed when needed. When we shift to a restaurant, sound designer Iain Fisher sneaks in some background tumult when appropriate.

Steven Dietz’s dialogue intelligently explores the many manifestations a lie can take on, through both action and language, and peels away a huge onion’s worth of layers as we visit the characters’ relationships in sequences that don’t always follow chronology. But the hand-of-fate aspect that intrudes, putting the finale of the play-within-the-play into the finale of the play itself, for example, or suddenly representing as an actor one of the least likely candidates, seemed to rob the characters of the insights they’d labored to achieve.

For me, the model of this kind of entertainment is Richard Rush’s film “The Stunt Man.” Most of what seeks to emulate it turns out merely to be a collection of stunts.

The show plays through November 9.

Private Eyes by Steven Dietz
Directed by Jonathan Croy
With Caroline Calkins, Elizabeth 'Lily' Cardaropoli, Lori Evans,
Marcus Kearns, and Luke Reed

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