|Conor J. Nolan, Danyelle Tinker, and Jay HashPhoto by Alicia Turvin|
By Tina Arth
If there is one single theme underpinning Private Eyes, Steven Dietz’s enigmatic onion of a play within a play within a play currently being presented by Twilight Theater Company, it is this: do not believe that you see and what you hear (where have I heard that before?) – deceit lurks everywhere, and it’s tough to separate actual from alternative facts. Taken to its logical extreme, that means that you should not trust this review. Logical extremes be damned – truly, I would not lie to you!
The story? Well, it’s complicated, and courtesy of Dietz’s wit and the actors’ delivery, surprisingly funny. Taken at the most literal level, a husband and wife (Matthew and Lisa) are rehearsing a play under the direction of Adrian. Adrian has seduced Lisa, and the two are having a none-too-well hidden affair right under Matthew’s nose. Matthew entertains rather elaborate fantasies about revenge, some of which are shared with Frank, his therapist. Matthew meets Cory, Adrian’s estranged wife, who has been playing lots of spy tricks to hunt down her runaway spouse. Turns out Adrian does not really love Lisa, and the foursome scatters, but Lisa and Matthew meet again years later and admit (to themselves and the other) that they are still in love.
The author has scattered this relatively straightforward exposition with a series of plot wrinkles that keep the audience guessing. The uncertainty is enhanced by the non-linear story telling – the play moves from middle to end to beginning with dizzying frequency. At several points, we think we are watching the “real” play (as in, the theoretically true story line) only to discover that the action is either happening in the actor’s imagination or that the whole scene is a play within a play. Director Paul Roder and his cast do a brilliant job of keeping us guessing throughout, and when I left the theater I still was not sure which of the play’s “realities” was the real one (undoubtedly exactly what the author intended). There are small tells throughout, like an odd bit of blocking or a bit of overt surrealism, that serve as warnings that things are not as they seem – but there is no point where one can confidently say “Aha! Now I get it!”
Therapist Frank (Alicia Turvin) is the closest thing to a guide through the morass – she sometimes directly addresses the audience, and we may be meant to take her for a reliable narrator – until the end, when we cannot. Turvin has mastered that soothing therapist-mode where even the most outrageous things seem plausible (one of her patients succumbed to infidelity because of the Earth’s curvature?), and her theory that infidelity comes from accidentally crossing the line between fantasy and reality fits beautifully within the broader structure of the play. Rachel Roscoe wears several guises as Adrian’s wife Cory – waitress, private eye, writer, woman wronged – and she carries off her sometimes-outlandish personas with flair. I especially loved her weirdly detached waitress; as an expression of one of Matthew’s fantasies, she is freed from the need to even try for realism, and she embraces the absurdity with utter comic abandon.
As British director Adrian Poynter, Jay Hash is deliciously unlovable – cynical, manipulative, amoral and cowardly no matter which version of “reality” is in play. If, as Adrian says in the script, “directors are paid to be assholes,” then Hash succeeds in convincing us that his character is born to direct.
The most nuanced figures in the play are Matthew (Conor J. Nolan) and Lisa (Danyelle Tinker). Despite his rather antisocial revenge fantasies, Matthew is the most likeable character, and Nolan’s performance elicits sympathy even when he is behaving badly (or fantasizing about it?). He projects a kind of worried puppy cuteness and naiveté that leaves us unprepared for the possibility that he may be the story’s real mastermind – precisely the effect that is needed to keep us on our toes. Tinker ‘s “Lisa” is also multifaceted – she projects intelligence, and even occasional flashes of integrity despite her apparent adultery. Tinker gives the role just enough sincerity that we cannot help but wonder how she could betray Matthew for a slime ball like Adrian – the answer may be unbridled passion, or it may be simply the demands of a role she is playing.
Twilight has a reputation for doing edgy and unusual material, and Private Eyes fits beautifully into this mold – puzzling, often hilarious, ultimately thought-provoking, and well worth your time.
Twilight Theater Company’s Private Eyes is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Sunday, September 23, with performances at 8 P.M. on September 14, 15, 20, 21, and 22 and 3:00 P.M. on September 16 and 23.