Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1999

It was such a huge surprise to walk in to Shakespeare & Company and discover a contemporary play performed in modern dress that after that I was fairly immune to further surprises. I cannot decide whether this was a problem because I didn’t feel the full impact of all the surprises to come, or whether it was a boon because I was so ready to accept surprise that I was able to ride the coming tide of surprises without getting overly concerned with “understanding” it all.

I think it really is best to go to “Private Eyes” prepared that you are going through the looking glass. Don’t be like Alice and ask all kinds of silly questions and struggle against the ways in which what is seemingly real is rendered false in the twinkling of an eye.

“Private Eyes” is a fun and funny play which will keep you wide awake and guessing. This is no spectator sport. It is exactly like driving a car. Mostly you sit and observe what is happening in front of you. You need to react when approriate, but trying to anticipate what your next reaction could or should be will get you in big trouble. There is no sense trying to “understand” a hairpin turn or a rotary – just stay alert and go with the flow of traffic. Don’t try to go faster or slower or oversteer. Just handle the curves and the bumps as they come along.

Playwright Steven Dietz calls “Private Eyes” a comedy of suspicion. It may or may not take place in the mind of Matthew (Jonathan Epstein), an actor who is consumed with the suspicion that his wife Lisa (Ariel Bock) is having an affair with the director who has cast them both in a play. It is never clear when what you are seeing is what really happened, what Matthew thinks happened, what Matthew wishes happened, or what his therapist Frank (Robert D. Lohbauer) understands or imagines from what Matthew (and Lisa) tell him during sessions. If those sessions really do take place.

The torment that jealousy and suspicion create within the human mind are well documented. “Othello” springs to mind. But this play is a lot more fun than “Othello”, and a lot shorter.

All the actors, Shakespeare & Company regulars who often work together in different cast configurations, seem to be having a blast performing this play. No restricting Elizabethan or Edwardian costumes, no blank verse. Epstein was the best thing on the stage, leaving his colleagues in his dust, but everyone seemed to play his or her part with a light touch and good humor.

The only thing that is disconcerting in this play is that the women are constantly referred to by the men as “drop dead gorgeous”. I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that we all fall madly in love with extemely imprefect looking people every day, but on the stage someone described as that beautiful needs to look a little less like a normal person and a little more like someone universally desireable. Both Bock and Julie Nelson as Corey were in bad need of a hairdresser. A little mousse, a blow dryer and a round hairbrush and they could have been considerably more drop dead gorgeous. If Shakespeare & Company can’t afford a bottle of mousse, a brush and a blow dryer, let that be my contribution to the $5.1 million they need to raise.

Now I would go to the moon and back with Epstein’s Matthew, if only he would ask, but I don’t think I would go for a cup of coffee with Malcolm Ingram as the smarmy British director Adrian. But in this play no one much wants Matthew, both of the women seem quite fixated on Adrian. If Ingram gave me some clue as to Adrian’s appeal I might have a better understanding of the women’s motives and Matthew’s suspicions.

Director Kevin Coleman could have encouraged his actors to show the audience more of what makes them attractive. I have no doubt that getting to know these actors well I would perceive things that made them sexy, handsome, beautiful, or repugnant – things beyond outward physical appearances – but in two hours on the stage outward physical appearance is pretty much what you have to rely on. This isn’t real life. Make ’em look good and act sexy. We haven’t got the time to get to know their sparkling personalities.

“Private Eyes” runs through September 5 at the Stables Theatre at Shakespeare and Company‘s home at The Mount, 2 Plunkett Street, Lenox. The show runs two hours with one intermission. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999

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