Private Eyes, now playing at Manbites Dog Theater, features an intelligent, witty script by Steven Dietz, excellent acting and directing and a style that mixes raw emotion with unashamed theatrical effects. In short, it would be a typical, top-flight MDT production, if it weren't for one not-so-minor detail: The show is actually being presented in the Dog's Other Voices Series by Flying Machine Theatre Company, a Raleigh-based outfit that made its debut last March with The Rainmaker.
The script of Private Eyes revolves around the classic triangle--husband, wife and other man--all of whom work in the theater. Beyond that, there's little that can be said about the plot without spoiling the pleasure of seeing it unfold. Though it contains a lot of intense emotion, Private Eyes is a comedy, and much of that comedy comes from the audience's gradual realization that magician-playwright Dietz is presenting a sleight-of-hand act, where appearance and reality are often two different things. What keeps the play from being just an exercise in clever frivolity is that the lady and her husband really are being sawed in half.
That last fact is driven home by the excellent direction of Paul Frellick, who shows no fear of strong emotions, and the performances of J. Chachula and Jeri Lynn Schulke as the married couple. Both are precise, highly skilled actors whose characters seem like real people capable of being wounded to the core of their beings--which makes both their acting and their "acting" all that more moving and/or amusing. (If that last sentence doesn't make sense to you, see the play and it'll get clearer.) Chachula, one of Flying Machine's founders, has been familiar to local audiences for some years, but Schulke has previously worked mostly within the UNC drama department. If you haven't seen her before, do so now. You've got a treat coming.
If the other actors make less of an impression, it's only because they have less to work with. The third member of the triangle is a figure straight out of 19th-century melodrama: cold, sarcastic, manipulative and (to complete the cliché) British. Mark Filiachi doesn't turn this Vile Seducer into a real person, but he does make him a vivid cad. Derrick Ivey and Marta King ably handle a pair of roles that, again, I can't say much about without spoiling plot twists.
According to the program, the company's next show will be Paul Parnell's The Rise and Rise of Daniel Rocket in early June at the Longview Center in Raleigh. It's a play I know nothing about, but I plan to be there. If Private Eyes is anything to go by, Flying Machine is the strongest new group to hit the Triangle theater scene since Burning Coal debuted three years ago.
There's no danger of my giving away the plot of The Glass Menagerie. If you're not already familiar with Tennessee Williams' autobiographical memory play about his Southern-belle mother and his fragile sister, you're not the kind of person who reads theater reviews. Besides, The Glass Menagerie, like its characters, is one of those works that no amount of familiarity can make less vivid. As with Greek tragedy, a knowledge of what's coming only heightens the irony and the tension.
A good thing, too, because the PlayMakers Repertory Company's current production is weakest where it should be strongest, in the central role. Amanda, the mother, needs to be a force of nature--undefeatable, unstoppable, and above all, unaware of her own failings and illusions--and guest artist Kathleen Nolan comes across as just too darn nice. She's at her best in the character's quieter moments, reminiscing about her husband and her gentlemen callers on the Mississippi Delta and comforting her daughter. But for the play to work as it should, Amanda needs to be a kind of monster, albeit a sacred one, not just a flighty, chattering eccentric. Nolan seems unwilling or unable to conjure up the other Amanda, the one who nags son Tom out of the house and bullies daughter Laura into madness.
The best part of Kent Paul's production is the long, last-act scene between Laura (Sarah Rose) and her gentleman caller (Jay Montgomery). Rose makes Laura's shyness so palpable that watching her seems almost indecent, an invasion of privacy, while Montgomery captures the uneasy braggadocio of a kindly, not-too-bright young man who almost knows that his glory days are behind him. Eric Woodall brings passionate intensity to the role of Tom, a near self-portrait of Williams, though he slights the script's haunting poetry in his monologues. The production's chief visual pleasures are Patricia Holt's over-the-top gown for Amanda and Donald Eastman's 1930s walk-up apartment, one of the best realistic sets I've seen at the Paul Green Theatre.