Who's Playing Who?

Hat Trick's Private Eyes toys with the audience.

Sometime in the late 20th century, it occurred to theatrical modernists that the real subject of theater was theater: play-acting, lying to an audience, being a character, speaking "lines." The results were several of the key texts of theatrical modernism: Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author and Tonight We Improvise!; Genet's The Maids and The Balcony; the Epic Theater of Brecht as well as the more minor delights of Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound.

None of these authors has the same purpose as the others. Pirandello wants us to reflect on the paradoxes inherent in acts of theater; Genet urges us to see so-called "normal life" as a species of role-playing; Brecht wants to keep us from identifying with mere characters; and Stoppard just wants to have a little fun. Still, like modernist painters who never let us forget that the real subject of painting is form and color, these writers constantly elbow us in the ribs and remind us that, no, we're not watching some real guy named Hamlet or Willy Loman; we're ticket-buying customers observing carefully rehearsed actors pretending to be who they're not. Any other conclusion is just muddled — and hopelessly old hat. Theater's real and privileged subject is itself.

Steven Dietz's Private Eyes is of this nature. Though it finally lacks the powerful resonance of Pirandello's work, or Genet's, it's a play about what it means to be an actor — or a spectator. Somebody, it tells us, is having an affair. Either an actress named Lisa is involved with a director named Michael. Or Lisa's really an actress married to Michael and having an affair with their director Adrian. Or Lisa and Adrian only exist in Michael's imagination, or Lisa and Michael in the suspicions of Adrian's wife — that is, if Adrian's not divorced. Or, perhaps, something else altogether.

And while we're trying to work out who's a thespian and who's a civilian, everyone's acting: acting faithful when they're not, ignorant when they're wised up, long-suffering when in fact they're exceedingly and violently angry. And then there's that last inescapable suspicion: Maybe all of it's just a play named Private Eyes by Steven Dietz. In which case, our earnest efforts to distinguish what's true from what's theater are just a little bit nuts. As a different drama reminds us, It's Only a Play.

And it's a play that, in the current production by Tampa's Hat Trick Theatre, offers two winning performances. First there's April Bender's contribution as the possibly adulterous young woman Lisa. Bender's Lisa is a woman whose entire psychological makeup we seem to know after just a few minutes, and whose riveting completeness makes us forget Adam Wood's crude set at the Silver Meteor Gallery and give ourselves over to the world of the drama.

This is a complicated but recognizable woman, uncomfortable in public spaces but utterly at ease when in bed with her lover. With a stranger, she's easily flustered; with people she knows, she's forthright, forceful and formidable. She's also a woman of many moods — giddiness, indignation, ferocity. Lisa has a certain penchant for brinksmanship that makes her dangerous to any man who thinks he has her in hand, and she's capable of pushing a tricky situation to its dreadful limit. She's also sexy and seemingly vulnerable enough to convince a Don Juan that he can have her and get away unscathed. He would be wrong, as a couple of the men in Private Eyes learn — too late.

The other fine performance is by Magali Naas, who plays a mysterious woman of many guises named Cory. Naas' Cory couldn't be any more different than Bender's Lisa; where the latter comes across as naïve and pliable (in fact, she's neither), the former strikes us as a sophisticate, perhaps a perpetrator among victims. In a play about actors, Cory's a consummate actor: One never knows for sure just what's on her mind, whose side she's on, where her "real" feelings would place her.

Like Bender, Naas has the ability to divert our attention from the unconvincing set to just the space that she fills with her small body and devious intentions; she's cunning and unflappable and seems to be repressing who-knows-what energies as she makes her way among her clueless associates. Is she ultimately well-meaning or a predator? In either case, this is a provocative performance that echoes in the memory long after the play ends.

The other main actors aren't quite so successful. The usually excellent Jack Holloway as Michael starts the play with a booming voice and gestures far too large for the intimate Silver Meteor space. He eventually quiets down, though, and in the last two-thirds of the play wins our sympathy and our concern. Rob Glidden as theater director Adrian also has his convincing moments — he's particularly effective when, late in the play, he begs for his life — but his British accent isn't persuasive, and he lacks the charisma that lothario Adrian needs if we're to believe in his virtually effortless amatory successes. Finally, Jonelle Meyer as the psychotherapist Frances is not convincing as a shrink. She fails to garner our attention with her scholarly monologues and, in her funniest moments, seems too conscious of going for the laugh.

Joe Winskye's direction is more consistent than his casting — especially clever is his use of Silver Meteor's aisle space for certain exits — and Lani McGettigan's costumes are tolerable if not inspired. This is not an attractive show to look at, but as Bender and Naas demonstrate, fine acting allows us to almost forget such considerations.

What we can't forget — what keeps Private Eyes from being an important play — is that author Dietz finally seems more interested in playfulness (pun intended) than in truth. A writer like Genet believes that the world itself is an act of theater, and so his investigations resound beyond the stage on which he sets them. But Dietz doesn't seem to have a deeper philosophy that his play mirrors; he surprises us, entertains us, but never tells us about our lives. His play is ingenious but illuminates nothing. He's writing something, but not writing about something.

Maybe a modernist painter would say: that's enough, he's being true to the dimensions of the canvas, anything "deeper" is illusion. And I have to admit, that's an argument with some power.

Still, I wish there were more — more of that illusory, truthful depth — in the two acts of Private Eyes.

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