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Once, in a moment of unbridled pomposity, a certain reviewer offered the observation that the theater was no place for mere entertainments. Motion pictures are entertaining, this writer said to his dinner companions with a sneer, but theatrical form and tradition demand more. A play needs to tell us something we didn’t know, to shed new light on a situation we thought we understood, to put on stage a kind of experience previously foreign to us.

OK, so I was being narrow-minded. Perhaps it was that I had just seen Footloose.

That said, it’s awfully gratifying when a show like Private Eyes comes along. In Source Theatre’s production, sharply directed by Joe Banno at the Old Vat, Steven Dietz’s gem of a play proves that a slick, cleverly built entertainment is inevitably more entertaining when it has an idea or two in its head.

In that way, it’s reminiscent of the still-running Broadway smash Art—not because Yazmina Reza’s bright boulevard comedy deals with similar subjects or unfolds in like fashion, but because each play skates cleanly along, never slowing down enough to let the audience look for structural flaws in the playwright’s clever constructions, constantly distracting the eye with little miracles of scene writing, and—oh, joy—hiding here and there a pungent, provocative auctorial observation about the nature of love or friendship or self-deception or desire.

Not that there are many structural flaws to complain about in Private Eyes. Dietz puts an actress (Lisa Newman-Williams), her actor husband (Jack Vernon), and their director (John Lescault) through increasingly antic hoops on at least three levels: There’s the play we’re watching, the play they’re rehearsing, and the (passion?) play that unfolds in the actor’s overheated imagination as he wrestles with the suspicion that his wife and the director are having an affair.

They are, of course. Or maybe they’re not. Dietz keeps suggesting one answer, then the other, tilting the playing field just when it seems one side is clearly gaining the upper hand. The play constantly—and successfully—trades on surprise and misdirection, keeping the audience dazzled and delighted as scene after scene turns out to be something other than what it seemed when it started. Successfully, I should say, until the very end, when a waitress (Kate Norris) who may be a private eye is revealed as someone else entirely; you’ll guess her identity a minimum of 30 seconds before she announces it—one of my seatmates saw it coming in the previous scene. And the final sequence spells out a resolution that might better have been left unclear; Dietz’s last detour takes him into sentimental territory, which seems strangely at odds with the worldly tone he affects for most of the play.

But between the twists and turns that lead up to that slightly deadening end, Dietz hides ideas that are usually worth the rather rich language in which he tends to frame them. He has an ear for the sappy banalities of infatuation-speak, and a clear, if slightly jaundiced, eye that sees a troubling big picture: “We think our lives will be changed in front of us—that we’ll be present when it happens. But we never are. Our lives are changed in distant rooms, without our knowledge or consent. Some word or glance, some quiet decision across town or across country is often the very thing that comes back and does us in.”

And this startling idea about familiarity: “The thing about loving someone over time is that you start to feel the only way you can truly surprise them is to hurt them….You’ve spent all your compliments, dished out all your praise, used up a thousand ‘I love you’s and ‘I love you’ variations. You’ve got a history of kind words and a houseful of pet names—but you’ve lost the ability to shock.”

Curiously enough, that last speech belongs not to Lisa, the possibly wandering wife, but to Matthew, the possibly deceived husband. Dietz has made him the play’s unsteady center, and Vernon’s performance is subtle and sure enough to show that the unsteadiness is just part of being human. A lesser actor might have made Matthew easy to dismiss—which would be fatal to the play; Vernon makes him remarkably sympathetic, remarkably memorable.

Newman-Williams handles her namesake part with sure timing and stage presence of a rare and rich kind; director Banno (Washington City Paper’s opera critic) perhaps allows her to get a trifle broad with her comic bits, though I suppose she is playing an actress.

Two to watch: Norris, an outrageous scene stealer and fearless mugger, last seen touring with the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, for whom she played Richard III and Kate in The Taming of the Shrew—back-to-back, in repertory. She’s gifted and funny, she can make the word “inevitable” sound like the name of a Siberian city, and Washington will be a safer place for farce now that she’s moved to town. And Tony Gudell, who’s been working on the fringes in shows like Le Neon’s Salome and Studio SecondStage’s Kerouac. He makes Matthew’s shrink either a refreshing voice of sanity or another narcissistic freak bitten by the acting bug, depending on how you read his confession about having “some experience in the theater myself.” Whatever; he’s just fine.CP