Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?"
That line is widely attributed to Groucho Marx " from Duck Soup, though it's spoken by Chico dressed as Groucho.
It's also the core dramatic proposition in Private Eyes by Steven Dietz, currently in production at Southern Rep as the initial offering of the Golden Eagle Theatre Company. The characters and the audience bear witness to plenty of events that may not be as they appear, but it's less of a mystery than a running optical illusion. Matthew (Keith Launey) can't figure out if his wife is cheating on him, but Dietz doesn't want to let the audience think for long that it knows what's going on either. Every time something important seems to be revealed, the action changes and we realize our persepective was skewed or incomplete. It's like an M.C. Escher drawing of stairs that continually make right turns that lead up (or down) and, in three more turns, right back to the same place. Just when you're getting somewhere, you have to pull back and start over with a new perspective. By the end, it's maddeningly satisfying.
As the play opens, Matthew sits at a table in the middle of a very spare set and Lisa (Liz Mills) enters. She is an actress here for an audition. Matthew directs her to do a flirtatious scene with a chair as a silent partner. It doesn't go well, and he both taunts and flirts with her. It's not clear whether she wants the part enough to engage him, but as he flirts, the tables turn. And then Adrian (Leon Contavesprie) enters.
Adrian is the true director. We have been watching Lisa act but in a play-within-the-play " about auditioning to be in a play. As they talk about the scene, we realize that Lisa and Matthew are married. And then there really is the question of whether she's interested in the director, and whether he is interested in her. Dietz constantly pre-empts the flow with changes of scene and perspective. Besides the tricky layers of plays within plays, there are other narratives as well. Some scenes may even be imagined as directions the play could go.
A prolific contemporary playwright, Dietz wrote Private Eyes in 1996. He's written plays on a wide array of subjects and taken various approaches. This one recalls a play a decade older, Don Delillo's The Day Room, a work begging similar madness. In it, a bunch of mental patients overrun their hospital, masquerading as doctors and nurses and offering bogus care. Or are they an avant garde theater troupe? Are they delusional patients who think of themselves as actors? And who's in on it? Are all the doctors and patients part of the act? Delillo's play is about paranoia and the trust people may arbitrarily put in authority figures, like someone who claims to be a doctor. Without my divulging all the surprises and twists, Private Eyes revels in similarly ambiguous and redundant situtations " actors playing actors playing themselves. Instead of paranoia and art, however, this is about relationships, cheating and suspicion.
Characters are often called upon to withhold elements in setting up the drama " like Lisa doing a scene first poorly and then well before you realize it's a play-within-a-play. At some points, the misdirecting elements are a little rough, but ultimately the cast handles the show ably and convincingly. Launey offers a sympathetic trek through a humbling set of revelations. Mills maintains a coy fickleness as actress, wife and lover. Contavesprie is entertaining as a cocky and caddish Brit, though his accent wanders at times.
Deitz shrewedly complicates his plot with the conventions of acting and rehearsing. He takes that to another level by repeating portions of the script in both the play and the play-within-the-play, confusing which scene is real. The second act descends into rewarding chaos, and in a strange way, both everything and nothing seem true. But by the end, one does feel certain that it's a good piece the theater.