Peter Shaffer packs his “lighter” plays with the same multifaceted meaning and lengthy philosophical discourse as his most somber works–Equus, Amadeus, The Royal Hunt of the Sun. He also uses the same theme–the ultrasensitive idealist’s struggle to live comfortably in a mediocre world. The major difference is that in the lighter works the protagonists have the opportunity to change without making great compromises.

In Shaffer’s companion one-acts The Private Ear and The Public Eye, we are confronted by a young and an old version of the same brand of misfit. The protagonist of The Private Ear is a young white-collar underling whose best buddy calls him Tchaik for Tchaikovsky–he’s obsessed with classical music. He speaks of “giving Behemoth [his expensive stereo system] a record for his supper.” While the music thunders through the speakers, he vigorously conducts his air orchestra. But his Wagnerian fantasy of perfection now requires a perfect lady’s admiration, and this shy country boy has invited Doreen, a girl he met at a symphony concert, to dinner. He has also asked his shallow, cynical, but socially sophisticated pal Ted to assist in what he is sure will be the most flawless conjunction of spirits since Dante and Beatrice. Instead she falls shorter and shorter of his impossible expectations. When it becomes clear that she’s more interested in Ted, he puts on the love duet from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in a last-ditch attempt to transform the mood.

The Public Eye presents us with Charles, a middle-aged accountant who has married Belinda, a free-spirited gamine half his age, planning to make her over into his ideal woman. Though this idea meets with her complete approval initially, she begins to break training, which causes her husband to believe she has fallen under the spell of another Pygmalion. To uncover evidence of that he hires a detective, who turns out to be a Mediterranean Merlin. Julian has the sartorial taste of a cockatoo and, fortunately, the wisdom as well as the countenance of Buddha. He quickly discerns the root of the marital discord and proposes a plan to restore equilibrium.

By the time he wrote Lettice and Lovage in 1990, Shaffer had devised better ways to make his hypercritical oddballs more plausible, to make their need to keep trying to move out into the world at such great pain to themselves more understandable. After all, what’s to stop Tchaik from adoring his records in solitary ecstasy, free from the risks of playing gods-and-goddesses? And what’s to stop Charles from barricading himself in his office or his club? The directors of these one-acts–Greg Kolack for The Private Ear and David Perkovich for The Public Eye–answer these questions, making it clear that Tchaik and Charles’s stubborn reluctance to accept the world as the flawed place it is will make them extremely lonely and unhappy, and that this is neither noble nor desirable. As Julian puts it, “We are born living, and yet how ready we are to play possum and fake death . . . so scared of looking foolish, so afraid of being touched by life, that we put up barriers against it.” Hope remains, however. After relinquishing his would-be dream girl, Tchaik deliberately scratches one of his beloved records and settles down to practice listening to an imperfect love duet. And Charles is persuaded to take a guided tour of the world outside his narrow intellectual experience.

The density of Shaffer’s dialogue and the theatricality of his physical humor make simply walking through the lines inadvisable, yet the Interplay cast sink themselves so deep into their characters that they hardly seem to be acting as they dexterously weave their way through the articulate but frequently talky script (the production runs two and a half hours with one intermission). Perkovich, as the unflappable Julian, displays a droll foreign accent and an almost superhuman charm, without which his character could quickly grow abrasive. Christopher Royal’s Tchaik borders on psychopathic at moments, but the sight of him directing and singing along with the lynching song from Britten’s Peter Grimes is enough to break your heart. Michael Grant and Ann Followill (Ted and Doreen)–and Larry Dyekman and Debra Ann Miller (Charles and Belinda)–often risk seeming like mere straight men for Perkovich and Royal, but they carry out their duties with uncaricatured sensitivity.

Jeffrey Kolack manages to fit two realistic box sets into the tiny Interplay studio space. Caryn Weglarz’s costumes are museum perfect in their re-creation of early mod London, down to Doreen’s fake ocelot cape and Belinda’s vinyl boots. And the timing of James Bebarski’s sound design is extraordinarily precise.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Greg Kolock.