Sleuth by Anthony Shaffer. Directed by Jesse Berger.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Let me get you another drink before we begin."
Philip Goodwin and Jay Goede in Sleuth; photo: Harry Lee
Andrew Wyke has an agenda. Before inviting his new neighbor, a weekender named Milo Tindle, over for a drink he has prepared the room in his house where he will entertain the younger man. Wyke, a mystery writer, has cleverly concocted an evening’s entertainment for his slight acquaintance and that "entertainment" requires a bit of drinking, a bite of confession and chomp of alarming game playing that could, and seemingly does, turn into something frightening and dangerous. That is the plot of Act One of Anthony Shaffer’s comedy thriller, "Sleuth."
This play, with its many surprising twists and turns, goes into the concept of adult gamesters with a vengeance. A note from the producers at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont asks that reviewers not reveal the many plot twists and secrets. It is to be hoped that no one would be a spoiler for a play of this sort. That said, in this day of "spoilers" of the Harry Potter novels, this reviewer has no intention of telling you one more thing about the story in this show. I will make note, however, that the program notes provided by Dorset tell their story brilliantly. If reading is fundamental, than the work done by the team of actors in this presentation is itself fundamentally revealing.
Wyke is played masterfully by Philip Goodwin. The man is never offstage and he holds the stage with an actor’s magic. Not the handsomest human being, not the cleverest as it turns out, Wyke is perfectly portrayed by this actor. Goodwin seems to know the space he temporarily inhabits in this role, every nook and cranny of the room provided him by the designer. It is as though he has dwelt here for a long time and, in part, it is that familiarity that give this play a new reality. There seemed to be, at the performance I attended, many people who were not familiar with this show in any previous form including the movie with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. Goodwin’s performance is what they will likely take away with them for his every movement, action and gesture in Wyke’s habitation gave the impression of a reality we have been privileged to intrude upon. It’s a wonderful thing when an actor can make us believe we are, indeed, the flies on the wall.
As his principal opponent in his evening’s games a handsome younger actor, Jay Goede, takes the part of Milo Tindle. Milo is described as "smarmy" yet Goede’s easy elegance decries that description. Instead he presents us with a man who is handsome, at ease, willing to partake in certain off-the-wall party games. He is a man who may drink too much but never shows an outward sign of having done so. He is a man any woman would covet, love, give herself to in spite of another man in her life. He is dapper without being distrustful. Goede has a voice that wafts rather than intones. He uses it to great advantage in this role. Startlingly, he emerges as Wyke’s equal in the first act of the play and when he manages a distant revenge for his treatment by this drink-dispensing host, it is almost a treat.
Director Jesse Berger, obviously, has done a wonderful job here manipulating his two principal characters through the intricacies of plot and counter-plot. Whether he has imparted that sense of familiarity to Goodwin or found an actor who handles such things superbly on his own is immaterial. Likewise, Goede's work in defining his non-smarmy Milo could be the work of the director or actor, but again it matters little here because the result is one of total comfort in the actor's portrayal of the character with all his flaws and flagrant disregard for common morality. Berger takes them both in and out of spaces and relationships with an ease that seems to be happening for the first time right before our eyes. It's an artist's concept of human interaction that happens to reveal reality perfectly.
This is a five-character play, by the way, but to talk about the other roles would be to remove some of that mystery and magic that is so theatrical. I will comment on one of them, because his presence in act two is critical. Inspector Doppler is the quintessential British detective, and one who says so as soon as he can. Played by Sean McNulty in a gravelly, physically moribund manner, he brightens up a few moments early in the second act.
Wilson Chin has created two rooms in Wyke’s special home in Wiltshire. This creation is amazing and one that would tempt any second home buyer in the region, I think. High ceilings, wood paneling, secret bar, lovely fireplace and a grand staircase to kill for, or on. It’s a beautiful room. The lighting by Josh Bradford is perfection. Every moment of this play has its look and that is in no small part due to the expert work here. Costumes are handsome, amusing and apt. Each character is well-defined by his look and Theresa Squire has provided each man with his unimpeachable clothing.
Sleuth closes out the Dorset season. It has been the first season for a new artistic director, Carl Forsman, who has delivered a fine array of plays, old and new. His choice of this romantic comedy/thriller as a final offering leaves us wanting more from him. Hopefully the years to come will do the same, provide the perfect way to wile away hours in other people’s lives leaving us wanting to return again in the future. Whether you know Sleuth or not, don’t miss it. This Dorset production is the season’s best mystery.
Jay Goede as Milo and Philip Goodwin as Andrew; photo: Harry Lee
Clowning Around in Act One; photo: Harry Lee
Sleuth runs at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Dorset Vermont through August 26. Tickets are $30-$35. For a schedule and to purchase tickets, call the box office at 802-867-5777.