British playwright Anthony Shaffer’s ingenious, hairpin-turn stage thriller about a competitive game of one-upmanship, humiliation and revenge, is scored like a tennis game.
The incomparable Jim Petosa, an award-winning stage director who is leaving the area after serving as an exemplary Olney Theatre Center artistic director for 18 years, leaves behind a unique, mind-blowing, Stanley Kubrick-like vision.
We are drawn into an odd, timeless world built on a diamond-shaped thrust stage: A square-sectioned, translucent floor, lit from beneath, could be a chess board. Set design by designer Cristina Todesco is reminiscent of the last hallucinatory ten minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. A sterile-white-wall-and-corniced room, furnished with anachronistic, white furniture, seems to levitate against black space. There the similarity ends. As if to mock a prop-cluttered, Edwardian setting borrowed from an Agatha Christie novel, Todesco adds props suggesting a posh, country manor house: Recessed shelves, laden with books, antiques and flasks for a bar. A modernistic chrome, blacktop table, center stage, is laid out for Senat, an ancient Egyptian board game, placed in tombs for the journey of the dead. It’s a gorgeous set for the surreal trip ahead.
This is Shaffer’s Wiltshire, England. And this play takes aim at the stereotypes found in the 1930s Golden Age of British crime novels. The amateur, super-intelligent sleuth, (like a Sherlock Holmes) who solves the mystery before the dumb cop does, is the source for the title.
Shaffer is more interested in overturning the smug world of the detective novel and exploring the criminal mind. Nothing is as it seems. To keep the reversals surprising to the end, it’s imperative that you go into this tennis match-of-wits, not knowing the score. Not only do the actors play pranks on each other, but also tricks are played on the audience. That’s part of the fun. (Take note of the five male characters listed in the program.)
One of the two main characters is Andrew Wyke (Bob Ari), a rich and vain, best-selling British detective novelist, who learns that Milo Tindle (Jeffrey Thaiss), a travel agency owner, is sleeping with his wife, Marguerite. Milo wants to marry Marguerite but can’t support her lifestyle. In 1970s socialistic England, gaming the government with tax evasion is fair game. And Andrew, who’s obsessed with having fun, shedding his spendthrift spouse and humiliating her upstart lover, invites Milo into the sport of committing the perfect crime of tax and insurance fraud.
Petosa keeps the witty exchanges pulsating and well-motivated and us off-guard, as well. It’s clear from the moment Andrew’s and Milo’s eyes connect, they are sizing each other up. But why would Milo agree to dress up as a clown and stage a preposterous jewelry robbery to enable Andrew to collect insurance? We understand in one quiet but illuminating moment when Milo, who’s head-over-heels-in-love with Marguerite, realizes he’s in over his head financially.
Bob Ari and Jeffrey Thaiss in the leading roles, maintain a riveting rapport in a power struggle that’s mesmerizing. And that’s key to the success of this show. Thaiss, perfect as Milo, projects the face of a Botticelli angel; innocent, and wavering between wary and watchful of Andrew. As Milo, Thaiss brings a light-hearted, light-footed insouciance and nuance to the role that is a joy to watch. For example: When Thaiss, as Milo, dons wig and mask to become Grock, the clown, and sings “On With the Motley,” a familiar aria from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, an operatic dimension adds depth and universality to Shaffer’s tale of infidelity and jealousy. But beware: Milo can become what name-calling Andrew calls him: “Punchinello,” the long-nosed, most devious, mean-spirited of commedia dell’arte characters, who adopts the defensive mask of stupidity before getting even.
Bob Ari is a solid actor with an impressive range. We loved him as the avuncular, pontificating barrister in the courtroom of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. (Olney Theatre Center, Oct. 2011) In Sleuth, Ari appears to relish playing another kind of pontificator as Andrew, the control-freak, the ventriloquist, who speaks through “Jolly Jack Tar, the Jovial Sailor,” a mannequin. Ari is most enjoyable as Andrew adopting dialects and re-enacting scenes from the world of “Merridew,” his fictional detective. The impersonations of characters speaking dialects are passable and funny. Yet, occasionally Andrew’s mask drops and we catch glimpses of a sadistic torturer clawing his way through a cat-and-mouse game.
Of concern are Ari’s handling of Andrew’s long speeches. Often this accomplished Broadway actor doesn’t speak his speeches trippingly on the tongue, to paraphrase Hamlet’s advice to the players. Rare words like “prestidigitation” (meaning sleight-of-hand), or “coypu” (river rat), and obsolete words, like “hebdomadal,” (meaning weekly) get lost. Andrew is decidedly a weird bird. He uses arcane vocabulary to impress his rival, Milo. But his language is as antiquated and outdated, as he is. A mystery writer from a different era epitomizes the Edwardian age of anti-Semitism and class snobbery. And for us to laugh out loud or be amused by a character using words so obscure they can’t be found in Webster’s, we need to hear every syllable– clearly. These are flaws seen on opening night that only repeated performances will heal and improve.
Spectacular special effects under technical director Eric Krauss are just as seamless as expected from Olney Theatre Center’s reputation. When appropriate for the scene, lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner floods the white set with atmospheric blues, pale green, and succeeds in projecting eerie, even creepy moods. And costuming by Nicole V. Moody adds reality to the unreal.
What’s impressive about Shaffer’s play is its intellectual challenge, the layered, philosophical depth, bordering on existentialism. Olney’s excellent production values and Petosa’s direction make this beautiful production of Sleuth definitely worth experiencing.
By Anthony Shaffer
Directed by Jim Petosa
Produced by Olney Theatre Center
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: 2 hours with 1 intermission.
- Steve Charing . MDTheatreGuide
- Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
Steve Charing . MDTheatreGuide
- Jane Horwitz . Washingtonian
- Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
Larry Bangs . Gazette.net