Reality and fiction. Truth and lies. Has any playwright had more fun fooling (and delighting and engaging) an audience than Steven Dietz does in Private Eyes, the best straight-play production I’ve seen at Santa Monica’s venerable community theater, the Morgan-Wixson, and one that easily holds its own against the top professional houses in town.

 Playwright Dietz is careful not to tip his hand right away, lulling the audience into believing they’ll be seeing just another romcom, this one revolving around an actress and director who meet cute during her seemingly unsuccessful audition, then meet cuter in a restaurant where she’s waitressing.

It’s here, precisely at the moment that the just acquainted Lisa and Matthew are about to share their first kiss that Dietz serves up the first of Private Eyes’ many delicious (excuse my French) mindfucks, so those who’d prefer to be taken fully by surprise are hereby advised to skip the next three paragraphs.

 It turns out that everything we’ve been seeing so far has actually been the rehearsal of a scene in a play being directed by handsome British hotshot Adrian (Chris Silvestri), and that Lisa (Kelsey Peterjohn) and Matthew (Eric Pierce) are in fact his play’s married-to-each-other stars—though perhaps not all that happily wed given that as soon as Matthew has stepped out of the room, we find out that Adrian and Lisa have been having a secret affair for the past six weeks.

Or perhaps not so secret if the adulterous couple’s suspicious are warranted and Matthew has already put one and one together but chosen for reasons of his own to stay mum on the matter … or so it might seem until he reenters and confronts the two of them with a long and curiously stagy monolog that turns out to be a new page that just came in the mail … or so Adrian and Lisa are led to believe until Matthew reveals the page to be blank. “There are no new pages,” Matthew tells Adrian. “You know that.”

 And Steven Dietz has only just begun his mind games since we haven’t yet met Cory (Taylor Patterson), who may be something other than a waitress, nor have we met therapist Frank (Mouchette van Helsdingen), about whom the less said here the better.

As fiendishly clever as Dietz’s script is, it could easily collapse under the weight of its mind-bending twists and turns if entrusted to the wrong hands.

 Fortunately, the Morgan-Wixson has recent USC grad Brandon Baer in the director’s chair and showing off the style, flair, and originality of a pro twice his age. (Baer’s decision to substitute an edgy jazz instrumental underscoring for the pop vocals suggested in Dietz’s script is just one of the director’s inspired touches.)

 A quartet of fresh young new-to-L.A. actors-on-the-rise add immensely to Private Eye’s appeal. Remember the names Kelsey Peterjohn (revealing the freshness of a young Sarah Jessica Parker), Chris Silvestri (think Paul Dano’s sexier younger brother), Eric Pierce (a Matt Damon-next-door-type leading man), and Taylor Patterson (Emma Stone meets Anne Hathaway), because you’ll be seeing a lot more of them on stage and screen in years to come.

 Add to the above the deliciously dry van Helsdingen (Holland’s gift to the Morgan-Wixson) and you’ve got a couldn’t-be-better cast, with understudy Rachel Seeley poised to step into any of the female roles.

Scenic designer Justus Bradshaw may still be a couple years away from his USC graduation, but he gives Private Eyes quite possibly the snazziest set I’ve seen at the M-W, part of a Grade A production design completed by David Hernandez’s striking lighting, Hannah Kim’s just right costumes, and Ellen Taurich’s jazzy sound design.

 Private Eyes is produced by Larry Gesling. Deena Tovar is satage manager. William Wilday is technical director and master carpenter.

Ambitions but flawed productions of The Little Dog Laughed, What The Butler Saw, and Spring Awakening have proven the Morgan-Wixson willing to go places where other community theaters would never dare tread. Private Eyes might well be the most challenging of the bunch, but with Brandon Baer and his dream team onboard, this time round they get everything absolutely right.

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Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica.

–Steven Stanley
January 16, 2016


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