Saturday, December 6, 2008

Theater review: "Sleuth" at Maltz Jupiter: Gimmick and riddle-laced detective challenge

By Hap Erstein

Coming close on the heels of its production of the farce Noises Off, Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth is the second straight play performed at Maltz Jupiter Theatre that takes great timing, precision and skill to pull off.

Like Noises Off, the northern Palm Beach County company’s Sleuth has its shortcomings, but gets enough right that it is still well worth seeing. In both cases, it is hard to imagine another area troupe with the resources and chutzpah to even make the attempt.

Ever since 1970, when it arrived on Broadway, Sleuth has set the standard for gimmick-filled, wit-laced, game-playing stage thrillers. It is aimed at theatergoers who enjoy a good riddle, anagram and pun, and there must be a lot of them, for the show ran three years in New York and was turned into a movie twice. (The second time, just two years ago, it was completely botched by ultra-classy adapter Harold Pinter and usually savvy director Kenneth Branagh, who drained the work of its considerable comedy.)

Anyway, the problem for reviewers is that little of the plot can be divulged without wading into the murky waters of spoilers. The more an audience knows about Sleuth, the less they are likely to be startled by its hairpin turns, narrative twists and out-and-out deceptions.

It can be said that it takes place at the country manor of wildly successful crime fiction writer Andrew Wyke, who invites a young travel agent named Milo Tindle to his home one night and tells Milo that he knows he is having an affair with Wyke’s wife. But rather than being angry, he instead proposes a scheme to help Milo steal jewelry from him. As a result, Wyke can defraud his insurance company, get his wife off his hands and marry his mistress. Got it?

Well, some or all of that is untrue and no one in the play is to be trusted. What ensues is a series of games to be played to the death in a highly theatrical way.

Broadway veteran Mark Jacoby (Ragtime, Show Boat) plays Wyke with histrionic relish, Jeremy Webb impresses with his versatility as Milo and the rest of the cast is up to the supporting, but crucial, demands of their roles. Still, Jacoby never quite persuades us that he is shaken to the core near the end of the play, and Webb could stand to be a bit more subtle in the second act. (Apologies for needing to be so vague.)

The production excels in its technical aspects, from Michael Bottari and Ronald Case’s richly detailed and effects-laden set to Donald Edmund Thomas’s shadowy lighting.

Friends I took to the opening night performance on Thursday were Sleuth virgins, having never seen the play or either of the movies. They claimed to be ahead of the evening’s biggest revelation, but there were audible gasps from other parts of the audience when it was sprung.

And somewhat like seeing The Sixth Sense when you already know its surprise ending, there is still plenty to keep a return visitor to Sleuth entertained.

Footnote: Director Peter Flynn (who won a Carbonell Award earlier this year for staging the Maltz’s production of Man of La Mancha) is apparently something of a gamesman himself. He has planted an ingenious clue to that key surprise in the text of the Sleuth program. Go a little early, comb through it and see whether you can solve Flynn‘s detection challenge.

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