A Puzzling Affair

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's writers, Steven Dietz, doesn't belong on television; 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 won national attention when Private Eyes was presented as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays, an event that draws the theater 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 out, indirectly, the play's major flaw. His starting point, he writes, was the scene in which two lovers lie to each other until 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 rehearsing a new production with the 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 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's 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. 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 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's 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, these elements refrain from commenting on the action. Together they make up 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 understandable. Indeed, Dietz's fractured riffs on love and jealousy are about as linear as the most elliptical music video. Consequently, his play comes very close to being just a clever collection of comic sketches only slightly connected to each other.

Even though he's breaking with tradition here, Dietz's knack for dialogue and plotting demonstrates that he knows the rules of a well-constructed play. In one scene, for example, Matthew is nearly paralyzed with insecurity at the thought of Lisa's affair, and in another he's all brash bravado, making a play for her in a restaurant. In a more conventional play, both scenes could be used to mark a clear path through Matthew's troubled relationship. Here, however, they're the experiences of two men: the private Matthew and the actor going through a scene in rehearsal.

Playing the chameleon role of Matthew, Cutler delivers a multihued performance that makes it nearly impossible to judge his true state of mind. Whether he's planning revenge or struggling with thoughts of his wife's deception, Cutler drives the drama and delivers the laughs with expert timing.

Equally comic is Rogerson's theater director who does everything for dramatic effect. In a wickedly exaggerated but on-the-money portrayal, Rogerson is the quintessential pretentious director, playing up his British accent and pointing out the immense implications of the use of a chair as a prop. It's easy to see how such a man could turn an impressionable actress's head and her husband's stomach.

Disappointingly, Kay's Lisa leaves the romantic triangle with only two equal sides. Lisa is the alluring lover, faithless wife, other woman, or bored spouse, depending on who's sizing her up and on the plot twist of the moment. While Kay pleasantly displays how her character gets caught up in the affair, she doesn't provide any clues about the way Lisa feels.

Director Louis Tyrrell's taut direction provides each scene with its own internal logic and driving force. Thanks to his pacing, we laugh along with Dietz's jokes and admire his magician's skill of illusion without pausing to notice that the playwright hasn't done much to move us.

But in the play's final moments, when the pieces fall into place, Dietz does leave us with Lisa and Matthew looking into each other's eyes. The emotional jolt it produces confirms Dietz's belief that there is a story somewhere in this play. Until he gets around to telling it in a more conventional way, I'll settle for the intellectually stimulating, if emotionally cold, exercise he's concocted instead.

Private Eyes.
Written by Steven Dietz; directed by Louis Tyrrell; with J.C. Cutler, Kimberly Kay, Bob Rogerson, Rose Stockton, and Claudia Robinson. Through March 8. Florida Stage, 262 S Ocean Blvd, Manalapan; 800-514-3837.