The new Atlanta group the Fern Theatre is giving Steven Dietz’s 1996 hit “Private Eyes” a spin in 7 Stages Theatre’s black-box space through August 25. The play is a pinwheel-eyed, kaleidoscopic look at a couple caught up in complex maneuvers of deception. Lisa (Rachel Frawley) is having an affair, and her partner, Matthew (Doug Graham), seems to be in the dark, though he may or may not be clued in to what’s going on.
The deception and falsehoods become metatextual as the couple, a pair of actors, rehearse a play, the plot of which uncannily mirrors their own situation. Matthew feels so beleaguered that when he sees his therapist, Frank (John Stephen King), he re-enacts and reinvents situations as he would have preferred they had turned out.
The play is given a smart and capable reading by the five principals. It’s a small cast of characters, composed of two enmeshed couples and the therapist, and the stripped-down production keeps the focus tightly on the action. The multiple, often conflicting layers are revealed in lurching jolts — we suddenly realize that what we’ve witnessed is a play rehearsal when Adrian (Jonathan Durie), the director, suddenly tells the couple to “take five.” In another scene, the love triangle goes out for lunch and is feted by a waitress with leis and party hats as the millionth table served, which gives things a David Lynch level of comic unreality.
“Private Eyes” provokes some nice contemplation of the meaning and implication of fantasies and daydreams. Much of anyone’s life is composed of “what ifs.” How does something we fantasize about, such as an affair, become a reality? Even if we never do it, can it not still have an effect on our lives? Doesn’t all this daydreaming accumulate into something significant?
The actors who portray the central love triangle — Graham, Durie and Frawley — bring a realistic and committed sense of connection to the action, which is crucial. An ironic wink or exaggerated sense of fantasy would be a disaster here. We the audience must follow the characters into each new situation with some sense of trust and interest, or all is lost. Mary Saville as Cory, the waitress, private eye and abandoned wife, and King as the therapist add welcome notes of comedic lightness to the evening.
Although the play is compelling, there’s something disheartening about not knowing whether what we’re witnessing is “real.” No one likes to feel tricked in the “maybe it was all a dream” sense. Moreover, “Private Eyes” seems derivative of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” and Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.” Why not just watch the real thing? And some of the play’s elements — the extramarital affair, the therapy sessions — seem like theatrical cliches, ubiquitous and slightly anonymous tropes of contemporary theater.
Despite the script’s inherent problems (can we really care about what’s in front of us if we suspect it’s all an authorial trick?), the cast gives a set of tight, smart, convincing portrayals. The play’s devices are cleverly rendered, and the Fern Theatre handles a tricky drama with accurate vision and a tidy, streamlined production. It’s an impressive first outing for the fledgling theater company.