In an early scene from Private Eyes—currently being staged by Pygmalion Productions—a character snipes at those who sit around “mistaking criticism for accomplishment.” Playwright Steven Dietz probably thought it was pretty clever to build an insulation against theater critics into his text, but there are actually much more effective methods of keeping our acid pens at bay. Like, say, not burying every genuine emotion under a tangle of too-clever-for-the-room feints and dodges.
It’s not that Private Eyes doesn’t have its fickle heart in the right place. Dietz wants to explore the lies lovers tell each other, fooling each other while simultaneously fooling themselves into believing they’re doing the right thing. He appears genuinely fascinated by the fears and fantasies that surround infidelity and with what’s left when you strip a relationship down to two vulnerable people facing one another. If only he were willing to strip his play down to that same level.
Diving into what’s wrong with Private Eyes without giving away its twists and turns is a tricky business—ironically enough, since those twists and turns account for a lot of what’s wrong with it. At its heart is a tale of possible marital infidelity involving married actors Matthew (Joe Welsch) and Lisa (Deena Marie Manzanares) and their current director Adrian (Ron Jewett). But how much of what we see is merely part of the play on which they’re working? How much exists either as paranoia or wish-fulfillment fantasy only in the mind of unreliable narrator Matthew? How much truth leaks into Matthew’s sessions with his therapist Dr. Frank (Anne Cullimore Decker)?
And how much will an audience care? Throughout Private Eyes, Dietz employs an extended metaphor comparing theatrical life to romantic relationships, the idea ostensibly being that people are playing characters and creating illusions with their lovers rather than taking the risk of exposing themselves honestly. It’s not a bad idea, but Dietz becomes infatuated with undermining the audience’s trust at the expense of practically everything else. The first time he pulls the rug out from under what we’re watching, it’s good for a chuckle of surprise. Around about the sixth or seventh time, you may begin to forget the point of it all.
The point should have been something about passion, but ultimately that’s the one thing Dietz’s approach to the subject saps from Private Eyes. He approaches infidelity and deception like a matter for scientific experimentation, toying with his characters rather than allowing their tangled emotions to bubble to the surface. He even gives Dr. Frank a direct address to the audience explaining the thought process at the precipice of a potential affair, turning it into a curious bit of cultural anthropology instead of a betrayal that could tear several lives apart. Private Eyes proves so detached in its own artifice that it too often loses sight of the human face of infidelity.
It’s certainly possible that many of these ideas might have clicked a bit better with some different production choices. At times, things feel just a step out of synch on stage, from music cues that stay too loud to allow the dialogue to be heard, to occasions where an actor seems to miss a lighting mark. Director Reb Fleming has some fun with Dietz’s more overt Brechtian devices and goofy excesses, but the pacing makes it even harder to find whatever raw feeling lies beneath the tricks.
Even the casting creates additional complications. Manzanares makes a strong impression as the confused apex of the romantic triangle, while Christy Summerhays blows away the room in her few brief scenes as a waitress with her own secrets. But while Joe Welsch—the talented actor from Salt Lake Acting Company’s 2000 production White People—has the right sarcastic snarl for a man trying to protect himself from a potentially painful reality, he never quite finds a convincing tone of emotional devastation. Ron Jewett fumbles with an accent I didn’t even realize was supposed to be British until dialogue makes specific reference to that fact, and even the fact that his character is a theater director can’t quite explain away the broadness of many line readings.
To be fair, even the finest actors would have a hard time with a text that almost reluctantly employs actual people to make its point. There are plenty of potentially compelling ideas swirling through Private Eyes, and Dietz effectively puts our fumbling for truth into words. But too many of those words end up in abstract speeches, and the characters who speak them populate a world kept at a theoretical remove. There’s too much smirking going on in Dietz’s delivery, and not enough soul-searching. It’s a thesis in search of a heart.