By Steven Dietz
Directed by Kevin Coleman
Shakespeare and Company
Wharton Theatre at the Mount, Lenox, extended through fall 1999

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Verry Interesting!-- to see contrasting productions of this play within the same month. Hard on the heels of the young Baobab Theatre Company's  production of  Steven Dietz's "Private Eyes" I was able to get to the Berkshires and take in Shakespeare and Company's.  This version, which featured the company's seasoned principals, was first produced last year and met with such enthusiasm that it was revived to play throughout this summer and has now been extended into the fall.  Not to beat around the bush, I liked Shakespeare and Company's much better. I think there were two reasons: first, the at the Mount the physical production was simpler; and second, the acting, while more complex than that of the talented youngsters of Baobab, was also more relaxed and centered.  There is a wound at the center of Dietz's tricky play about lovers' lies, and Shakespeare and Co.'s dance around its edges never lost sight of that core of pain even as it made a point of the artifice of its means of expression..

The Wharton Theatre isn't really a theatre, but a room, Edith Wharton's bright and airy second floor sitting room with French windows leading out to a terrace overlooking what's left of her Italian garden. The room is preserved more or less as Wharton decorated it in the early 1900's with the addition of a few rows of folding chairs on risers on either side to convert it to a playing space. In the center of the room, in front of the marble fireplace, there's a small round table set with a couple of chairs, and Jonathan Epstein is ensconced in another chair when Ariel Bock enters the room as Lisa, an actress auditioning for a role as a waitress.  Epstein has Lisa read a scene where she is interacting with a difficult (imaginary) customer.  A few lines into her scene, the waitress recognizes the customer as Derek Savage, a celebrated director, and embarrasses herself by gushing over him like an overeager fan.  Epstein seems unimpressed by Lisa's reading, and the actress protests that she could do better playing to a person instead of an empty chair.  Epstein then sits in the customer's chair and reads with the auditioning actress, underlining the similarity between the director OF the play and the director IN the play-- but a few scenes down the road Epstein is revealed to be playing not Derrick, the director of the play,  but Matthew, an actor cast opposite his own off-stage wife Lisa [Bock, who is indeed Epstein's off stage wife.] in this play-with-the-play about an adulterous backstage affair.  Confused?  That's the least of Dietz's script's complications. Malcolm Ingram, one of Shakespeare and Company's veteran performers who is indeed from England, plays Adrian, the pretentious philandering English director of the play that the married actors Lisa and Matthew are rehearsing. Julie Nelson plays a waitress who is also Cory, the deserted wife of Derek, who is also a hurricane and/or a Private Eye who prefers to be referred to as a Dick. Robert D. Lohbauer is Frank, playing a psychotherapist who hopes that his patients will also be Frank, but so far his patients seem to be Matthew and Lisa and....

The Wharton room is a space where as I watched the actors I could always see my fellow audience members and note just how they are responding to the latest twist of plot.  Spot lighting and blackouts are impossible there: sunlight defeats illusion.  Scene changes happen blatantly, whether carried out by the actors re-arranging a chair or by a pair of silent but saucy assistants in comic costumes, and much is made of the symbolic qualities of each item of the props and furniture. "Shall I use a chair?" is a fraught question!  There are party hats that perform ironic transformations, and a single rose fades to funeral black. Credit designers Govane Lohbauer and Jim Youngman. These changes have their own emotional temperature -- usually coolly comic-- and are as much part of the performance as the bits where the actors have lines. Consequently, there's no down-time for the audience in which to try to test out the information revealed in the scene just ended against some model of a linear plot, as we were tempted to do at Baobab.  The bottom layer of onion like illusion-- this is "real", the other scene was part of a play-- is ruled out; and a top layer is added, one in which the actors and audience acknowledge each other's presence.  This has the effect of making all the other pieces of pretense equal: a mosaic re-arranged.  I liked this premise much better, because I felt as if I were being invited to play along with the "game of just supposing" and make their discoveries with them.

What's remarkable is how director Kevin Coleman has found exactly the right tone, the optimum degree of theatricality, for each of the switcheroos.  The actors demonstrate impeccable timing as they leap in an instant from style to style, and endow each with its own kind of truth-- all the truth that the particular moment or a particular character will hold, and which is to be trusted only so long as that moment lasts.  The skills on display are those of acting exercises, or of the improvisations on the theme of jealousy that respond to a new "as if" called out from the sidelines. The effect of all this nimble facility is invigorating and depressing at the same time.  What a marvelous talent we humans have for lying!  How eager we are to believe what is most flattering, even as we suspect the worst!