"If you ever discover that what you're seeing is a play within a play, just slow down, take a deep breath, and hold on for the ride of your life." I fondly remembered this line, my favorite of Jack Handey's "Deep Thoughts," while watching the 2Cents Theatre Group's production of "Private Eyes: A Comedy of Suspicion" at the Hudson Theatre.
Steven Dietz's 1996 dark comedy tells a tale of adultery among a group of theater people in an ever-dissolving sequence of plays within plays within plays.
Married actors Matthew and Lisa (Philip Asta and Tiffany Roberts, a real-life husband and wife, to add another metatheatrical layer) rehearse a play about adultery for a megalomaniacal British director, Adrian (Diego Garcia).
Adrian is sleeping with Lisa behind Philip's back. Or is Philip on to them and plotting revenge with Cory (Alejandra Cejudo), who may be a dark-haired waitress, a blond private eye or Adrian's wife? Or are all these scenarios just delusions that Matthew is sharing with his therapist, Frank (the engaging Theresa Tilly)? The audience can never be sure. Handey would be beside himself.
This playwriting device is entertaining; it also includes a built-in explanation for any stagy or stilted acting. ("Oh, I get it," you think each time a scenario is revealed to have been a rehearsal, "they were doing it on purpose.") But as the story proceeds, the novelty of both narrative unreliability and unpersuasive performances diminishes.
Director Shaunessy Quinn telegraphs the text's smug cleverness (even his staging, which sends the actors up and down poles and ladders of Anderson William's multilevel set, is like a puzzle) without engaging the passions beneath. Getting invested in what's happening onstage seems more and more like a waste of energy. So the moving finale, which feels both intellectually and emotionally genuine, comes as a redeeming surprise.
"Private Eyes," the Hudson Theatre Mainstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 30. $20. (323) 960-4410 or www.plays411.com/eyes. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.