Sleuth by Anthony Shaffer. Directed by Jesse Berger.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Charles Shaughnessy and Jeremy Bobb; photo: Kevin Sprague
"Pay you back in kind."
The noun, and or verb, "revenge" sings a loud song on the stage at Barrington Stage Company’s theater just now as Anthony Shaffer’s Tony winning play "Sleuth" rears its beautiful head. For 1222 performances back in the early 1970s, this play riveted people to their seats as its changes and hard-right angles confused and duped audiences as the two main characters played their roles. Milo Tindle and Andrew Wyke, as played originally by Keith Baxter and Anthony Quayle, held onto the Broadway audience, sophisticated and aloof as it can be, with four hands gripping the throats of anyone unable to guess the unlikely outcome of this entertainment.
"Sleuth " is a thriller, a mystery play with a difference. Instead of there being a detective as indicated by the title, there are two men competing for the same thing - supremacy in life and love. Older Andrew Wyke is losing his wife Margaret to young Milo Tindle. Wyke, who doesn’t love her, is furious and intent on revenge. He executes his concept and then it is the turn of others to torment Wyke, taking revenge to other levels. That is the basic plot of the play.
Barrington Stage’s production, under the excellent hand and eye of director Jesse Berger, is a truly terrific one. It would seem that every item on David Barber’s moody set which appears to be falling apart - much as its occupant's life is falling apart - is placed just right, just as it should be. Aided by Jeff Davis’ dark and mysterious lighting and Clint Ramos’ high pressured costumes - the mask for the clown alone is a triumph - the production has the right feeling and even the right smell - though there wasn’t actually one. In spite of the oddly cantilevered walls connected by shoe-strings, the set does what it needs to in order to convey the necessary sense of order tempered by conversely proportioned lines.
There are seven characters if you include Margaret Wyke who never appears or is heard in this production - the film employed an actress cleverly self-named as Eve Channing (think Margo and Eve in "All About Eve") for a phone call or two. Still, Margaret does dominate the play in ways that her romantic rival Tea (who also never appears) does not. Three of the men are police officers whose dialogue desperately amuses. Margaret, or Margo, is the fourth and, naturally, there are the two protagonists mentioned above.
As Milo we have Jeremy Bobb, a young man whose closely cropped hair would seem to not be right for the romantic lead, and yet there is something to the severity of that cut in terms of who the character turns out to be. Bobb seems not to have the stature to inhabit the room in which this play is set. Then his performance turns on the reality of the situation and Bobb who never overplays or underplays, brings Milo into sharp focus. He fits into the part without exaggeration and when the word "smarmy" is tossed his way, we feel that there is something almost right about it, almost but not quite.
Andrew Wyke is delivered to us by Charles Shaughnessy, an actor who surprises as often as his character does. Whether serving meager drinks or spouting mighty paragraphs from his character’s novels, Shaughnessy makes Wyke into a man who is smaller than the sum of his parts. It is as though he has contracted before our very eyes, taken the peripheral characteristics of the man and compressed them into the hard shell that Wyke presents to others. It is a fascinating technique taking a larger-than-life intellect and reducing it to something that challenges through minimal efforts. Every gesture has an effect; every word takes its toll. Shaughnessy’s Wyke is twice the man for being wound tight, a spring ready to eject all normal reality. In the second act that control goes haywire for a while and the effect is mesmerizing.
Inspector Doppler is played to full effect by Sean McNulty. You will understand acting when you watch this man at work. The other two policemen have such brief roles that it doesn’t really matter what I say at this point about their work.
Director Jesse Berger has altered some of the Britishisms into more readily understandable American terminology. I don’t think it necessary to make such changes. The references fly by and somehow Wyke feels less himself to me. He should be a bit more aloof and such word play aids in that effort. That said, Berger has done a remarkable job of letting his actors take the space. There were two or three moments in the first act and one in the second act where I felt the director’s presence rather than the actor’s. In a show as well done as this one, we forgive such moments.
Thrillers usually have characters who present as common clay under the influence of bad weather. In "Sleuth" we have people caught in situations of their own making that must have inevitable ends that we hope won’t arrive. Wonderful players have preceded Bobb and Shaughnessy: Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, Jude Law, to name only three. The two on stage in Pittsfield are the equal of those who preceded them and they are live and in person too. We may cringe at a film, but when the acts of revenge present themselves within arms reach they truly move us to respond.
Not a laugh riot, "Sleuth," but amusing in very basic ways. Do not try those ways at home.
Sleuth plays at Barrington Stage Company’s principal theater, located at 30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA through August 1. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888 or check out their website at www.barringtonstageco.org.