I felt that there was a tension, almost a contradiction, between the welcoming attitude of the fledgling Baobab Theatre Company and that of their current play, Steven Dietz's "Private Eyes". But maybe it was all in my finnicky linear mind. I went to Peabody House to see this young company with great expectations, because colleagues had told me that Baobab's production of "Seascape with Sharks and Dancer" was the best piece of new theatre in Boston last year. I wasn't going to miss again the company that had made such an auspicious debut. On the other hand, I went wishing that I hadn't read "Private Eyes" beforehand. Or that I had read Dietz's script long enough ago to have forgotten it completely. What I remembered about the script, really, was that I had decided about one third of the way through that its Pirandellan playing with truth didn't add up either intellectually or emotionally, and that the playwright was just jerking me around. This is not an auspicious state to be in when the lights go up on actors who are counting on me to suspend disbelief. and enter their imaginative reality.
I looked around at the unusually youngish audience, took in the two-thirds of the theatre devoted to a lovingly assembled multilevel set, noticed the serenity of the director hovering around the box office, returned the smiles of the ushers and gophers-- all looked earnest and welcoming. Certainly not hostile or hard edged. The director, MJ Daly, came out at the top of the show and made a moving little speech about how the name Baobab referred to the African tree under which storytellers performed for their tribes, and how experience in Peace Core had convinced the theatre's founders of the importance of narrative and the storytelling tradition. The Peabody House was suffused with good feelings. Didn't seem at all the kind of place or the kind of people who would draw an audience in just to show off their trickery, just to make fools of us. So I did my best to go along with Dietz and Daly and her actors as they messed with my mind in a tale about tales and trust and lies and illusion. I did not succeed, alas-- I kept being pulled past credence to a point where my mind protests: Oh, yeah? Well, I don't believe a word of it. What's more, I don't care: because I don't believe you care.
I suppose by "you" I really meant author Steven Dietz, because the actors were good if young, and like all good actors they can believe six impossible things before breakfast, and care about anything if it gives them an opportunity to emote. Fortunately, others in the audience were easier marks-- including my critical colleague Larry Stark of Theatermirror. His review said that "Private Eyes" made him "laugh with delight at surprise after startling surprise as it burrows deeper and deeper after truths... lead[ing] the audience up so many garden paths that, just when they might begin believing nothing can be real, the acting turns so compelling they're ripe to be tricked again. The playwright does it by re-cycling scenes and sentences, each time in a new setting and played in an entirely different way, acquiring newer significance not only by new contexts but by the mere awareness of contexts past." So perhaps, unlike me, most of the audience retained an unspoiled child's capacity to be delighted when tricked, to see tricks as part of the arsenal of human understanding we all share-- because after all, every trick needs a dupe as well as a magician to work its miracle.
As the magician's assistants, the actors carried out their assignments with aplomb. Bill Church was awkward and gangly as Matthew, which made his nastier notions almost acceptable. He skittered lightly around the agonies jealously entails. Gail Herendeen was cool and professional as the adulterous Lisa, making lightning calculations about whether a response will "work" before committing to it, and prepared to turn on a dime. Aaron Crutchfield as Adrian supplied the most convincing emotional depth, an effect that clashed with the comings and goings of his Off-island British accent. Marianne Buckley, in Cory's various guises, supplied the dash of Theatre of the Absurd, daring the audience to knit her burlesque turns into the plot. I would never go to Phillip Duchamps' Frank for therapy, but he made it possible for me to believe that some people might, at least temporarily.
Baobab's program note quotes Dietz's description of his play as growing from "a scene in which two lovers fail to speak the truth. And, like a lie, the play grew. It began to go to greater and greater lengths to keep its own deceit afloat. It took my sense of structure for a ride and built a web of such complexity that clarity (a/k/a `truth') was rendered virtually impossible." The watching mind scurries to construct alternate scenarios to accommodate each complexity as it is added to the puzzle. Is "Adrian" a.k.a. Derek Savage, a manipulative director who is having an affair with Lisa, an actress whose husband Matthew Adrian/Derek has also cast in the two-character-- or is it three-character?-- play about adultery that he is directing? Or is the betrayal a fiction, part of a new play about an affair between a director and a married actress-- directed by Matthew? Or directed by the unnamed actor who is played by Bill Church, who is playing Matthew? Or possibly, the love affair may be a fantasy that exists only in the therapy session of this same jealous actor-- or of someone-- Frank?-- who may be Matthew's therapist, or Lisa's therapist, or a therapist who wants to be an actor or someone who is auditioning for the part of a therapist...... Long before the final complexity my mind opted out, rejecting the game as so rigged to be pointless. But it did me no good. A week later I was arguing long distance with an English playwright who insisted "Privates Eyes" does add up, and insisted we tackle the evidence point by point. So now I feel compelled to get the script again and go over it with a fine tooth comb, replicating the tedious obsessive behavior the play presents. And to try to get to Lenox Mass, where Shakespeare and Company is reviving their acclaimed production of "Private Eyes" from last season, to see it again. Dietz, you've won!