Based on the outstanding debut of the professionalQC Theatre Workshop last summer with the Tony-winning "Red," I had high hopes entering the troupe's sophomore entry, the mind-bendingly thrilling dark comedy, "Private Eyes."
With many of the same talents behind "Red" on board here, including the electrifying leads Thomas Alan Taylor and Mike Schulz, I was not disappointed. "Private Eyes" strongly solidifies the workshop -- which has transformed the old Johnson School gym into a sophisticated black-box theater -- as a dependable cultural force for intelligent, edgy, contemporary theater.
A 1996 "comedy of suspicion" by Steven Dietz, "Private Eyes" induces dramatic whiplash in the audience -- it's a wild roller-coaster of a play. Just when you think you know what's going on, the playwright pulls the rug out from under you and takes you in a completely different direction. The whole thing is a kind of riff, or theme and variations, on the concept of truth, and reality for that matter.
In the program notes, director Daniel Sheridan said the work "tackles the conventions of storytelling head on. This play empowers you to consider what is true; true about the characters and true about yourself."
"Private Eyes" begins with a harried director, Matthew (Mr. Taylor) auditioning an actress, Lisa (Jessica Sheridan). The scene -- like many in this edge-of-your seat experience -- is tense, and the art of acting is called a "combination of bloodshed and eloquence." But was that scene "real," or was it part of the play-within-a-play being rehearsed by this fictional company?
In "Private Eyes," Matthew's wife, Lisa, is having an affair with a British director, Adrian (played with articulate, feral intensity by Mr. Schulz). Or is she? Maybe the affair actually is part of the play they are rehearsing. Or perhaps it's all in Matthew's head. Matthew's level-headed therapist, Frank (Pat Flaherty), helps the audience by offering his own truth of the situation.
A flirty, cynical, female hurricane named Cory (Jessica Denney) throws a few wrenches into this tantalizing toolbox of a story. Suffice it to say thismulti-layered, intricate play would be far too confusing to summarize here, but it makes for a genuinely enthralling, exciting event to observe.
Due to the confident cleverness of Mr. Dietz, you honestly never know what is coming next. That element of surprise explodes every now and then to sizzling effect. Though the story unfolds in an unconventional, sometimes non-linear way, you can fully appreciate each scene for the biting humor, romantic intrigue, and domestic fireworks they contain.
Both Mr. Schulz and Mr. Taylor are commandingly on target in their mocking send-up of certain directors -- insufferable, egotistical, controlling jerks. Mr. Schulz has a perfect British accent here, and his laser-like focus and piercing eyes reveal much without him having to say a word. As the often confused, timid Matthew, Mr. Taylor is hyper and fidgety, and has a vivid imagination with which we can certainly identify.
Ms. Sheridan, torn between these two men in her life, is wholly sympathetic and endearing. Whereas she portrays a more open, honest character, Ms. Denney as Cory is more mysterious, sensual and dangerous. We first see her as an embittered waitress who bonds with Matthew, and Cory's character later changes drastically. Again, we're forced to confront, which one is real?
As the therapist trying to make sense of it all, the reliable Pat Flaherty is often frustrated and seems the sanest one in this theatrical madhouse. He addresses the audience at one point, as "the only one that can be trusted with this story..." Another plot twist reveals a shocking secret about his character toward the end. A climactic gun battle naturally adds a fiery frenzy to the finale. A coda is stark and poignant.
Mr. Sheridan -- who serves as lighting designer, with producer Tyson Danner and sound designer Bret Churchill -- also expertly makes use of choice musical selections as prelude, interludes and postlude, including "Tell the Truth" and "This is My First Affair."
So, a lot to chew on here, and boy, is it delicious. In the dialogue, Mr. Dietz notes: "Passion and suspicion are twin fevers that blind us," and that could be the theme of this spellbinding play. In "Private Eyes," the blind lead the blind, but the vision, wit and energy that QC Theatre Workshop employs to pull it off are truly a spectacular sight to behold.
If you go
-- What: QC Theatre Workshop's "Private Eyes."
-- When: Friday through Feb. 3; performances at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays.
-- Where: 1730 Wilkes Ave., off West Locust Street (just west of Division), Davenport.
-- Tickets: Pay what you feel it's worth. For more information, visit QCtheatreworkshop.org.
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