Peter Shaffer is best known today as the playwright responsible for two middlebrow West End and Broadway hits, Amadeus and Equus. However, 17 years before Shaffer wrote the one about the man who hated Mozart to pieces and 11 years before he created the one about the boy who loved horses just a bit too much, he came up with a pair of comic one-acts about the various ways men search for someone or something to love.

The Public Ear, the more conventional of the two, concerns a very square London office boy, Tchaik, with virtually no practical aspirations but with an almost religious love for his stereo system, which he gives the name Behemoth. Tchaik falls hopelessly and unreasonably in love with Doreen, a woman he meets at a concert, and turns to his hip friend Ted to show him what to do.

Ted, a bit of a swinger in an early-60s way, is full of worldly advice, none of which helps Tchaik when he invites Doreen over for dinner. Ted even volunteers to help Tchaik serve the meal, and as quick as you can say “predictable plot twist,” Ted becomes the life of the dinner party, easily winning Doreen over and all but seducing her before dessert is served. After dinner Tchaik, only vaguely aware that he is competing with his friend, tries to impress Doreen with his knowledge and love of classical music, but to no avail. Doreen prefers something more modern than Mozart–not Benjamin Britten, as Tchaik mistakenly believes, but rock and roll.

Tchaik finally manages to make himself attractive to Doreen, but then squanders his victory.

Although The Private Ear is not a bad play, only a brilliant production could make it look like anything but the minor work of a competent playwright. And Interplay’s production may be competent, but it is not brilliant. Under Ted Bales’s too literal direction, the flaws become only too clear. Bales’s very young, unseasoned cast–most of whom seem to have just graduated from DePaul’s theatre school this year–spend too much energy trying to maintain their British accents, which they do fairly well, and not enough energy making Shaffer’s often subtle comedy work. Only about a quarter of the humor in the play survives this production.

Of the three-person cast, Matt Roth, who graduated way back in 1986, seems the most comfortable onstage. Although he seems too young for the role of Ted, he at least knows how to deliver his lines so that they seem funny. Tom Pardoe, likable enough as Tchaik, seems completely unable to make him a comic character. Instead, Tchaik seems painfully pathetic first to last–the kind of man who would choose his stereo over human companionship every time. Deirdre Waters was fine, funny, and likable as Doreen, although her British accent sounded annoyingly more Scottish to me than English.

By far the better of the two plays, The Public Eye concerns a misfit detective, Julian Cristoforou, who dresses very sloppily and has a predilection for snacking between sentences. Julian is hired by Charles, a typically uptight middle-aged British businessman, to follow his young wife Belinda. Charles is convinced she’s having an affair, because she hasn’t settled into her life as the colorless wife of a successful London accountant. She insists on doing such unconventional things as going to horror movies, wearing odd clothes, and spending time in Soho with her bohemian friends.

Julian brings Charles the news that there is indeed another man in her life, but he neglects to add that he is that man. It seems that in the process of following her, he has fallen for her. And she is charmed that Julian would show enough interest in her to keep showing up wherever she goes. Their relationship never progresses beyond the sweetly platonic–she doesn’t even know his name–but it is deep enough to reveal the shallowness of her marriage to Charles. However, it becomes clear that Julian has come to save Charles and Belinda’s marriage, not wreck it. Private eyes ruin marriages, he explains, “public eyes” save them. This sweet play ends with Julian showing the all-too-stuffy Charles how to win back his wife’s love.

My opinion of Interplay’s production of The Public Eye is a bit skewed by the fact that as an adolescent I fell in love with the movie version of this play, which starred Topol as Julian and Mia Farrow as Belinda. No surprise, the Interplay production is not as good as the movie.

Director Patrick Murphy does a reasonably good job of bringing the play to life, although it’s hard not to wish he’d worked a little harder to show that the story takes place in the early 60s. Some of the dialogue–especially Belinda’s use of the word “dig”–just doesn’t make sense unless you realize that Belinda is something of a mod.

Matt Roth makes a very tolerable Julian, although his cartoonish comic style is more reminiscent of Anthony Newley than of Topol. Deirdre Waters, while not miscast in the role of Belinda, is not quite right for the role. Her Scottish accent really seems out of place in the mouth of a Londoner, and she doesn’t make Belinda seem very free spirited at all–in fact, there is something dark and Bergmanesque about her.

However, Roth and Waters’s acting sins are minor compared to David Weynand’s botched job as Charles. Weynand, who I last saw play a dragon quite well in a children’s play at the Blackstone, seems to think he’s still acting in a huge theater. He snorts and bellows and gestures, so that even those in the upper upper balcony can see and understand him. Unfortunately, Interplay’s theater is small and intimate, with only three rows and at most 100 seats–making Weynand look like an exaggerated parody of Master Thespian. If he could tone himself down, he would make a pretty decent Charles.