Sleuth: Roller Coaster of Highs and Lows in Dennis
British verbosity from the 1970s overcome by good acting
By Libby Hughes, drama critic for Cape Cod Today
The mystery "Sleuth" is the victim of British verbosity from a lengthy play structure of the 1970s and suffers because of it. For the second show at the Cape Playhouse, the amusing thriller hit some highs and lows on opening night. The original play may have had three acts as did many shows from forty years ago, but the Playhouse production is in two acts. The acting, on the other hand, overcame many of the drawbacks.
British playwright Anthony Shaffer (who passed away in 2001) had an interesting background. His twin brother is Peter Shaffer, the extraordinary playwright of "Equus" and "Amadeus." One can only imagine how the sibling rivalry blossomed between the sibling playwrights, who both graduated from Cambridge University in England. You will see the rivalry in "Sleuth" as the two characters try to outwit each other. Perhaps this was a catharsis for Anthony Shaffer, whose play opened at the Music Box theatre in New York in 1970 and won a number of Tony Awards. In 1972, a film was made of "Sleuth," starring Sir Lawrence Olivier and Michael Caine. British film producer/actor Kenneth Branagh made a remake of it in 2007. Shaffer also wrote "Frenzy" and "The Wicker Man." Neither of these had the impact of "Sleuth."
Artistic Director Evans Haile dropped a gossipy morsel as he introduced the show by saying that Governor Sanford of South Carolina, who allegedly hiked the Appalachian Trail, was a tame philanderer compared to the character in "Sleuth." That drew an enormous laugh. Without giving too much away, Andrew Wyke, a writer of murder mysteries, has discovered that his wife has taken a lover. Wyke invites her lover to his home and engages him in psychological games, tempting him with money and hoping to win his wife back. The rest is for the audience to discover.
The role of a first act forty years or more ago was to lay out the exposition for the audience to grasp the theme of the play. Peter Frechette, as Andrew Wyke, does a phenomenal job of inventing stage business, along with vocal gymnastics, to break up the mass of mountainous monologue. His English accent is that of a county squire in Wilshire, England, and is fairly proficient. American actors often have difficulty conquering the inflection pattern. Malcolm Gets, portraying the lover Milo Tindle, appears to be easy prey for the gamester and makes us believe in his innocence. We come to realize that he is a match for Wyke, as he cleverly reveals his skill in verbal dueling. Richard Frothsmore and Hugh Giraud have minimal roles.
The set and director
From the minute the curtain opened, Yoshi Tanokura's scenery brought a round of applause. The English country home was full of Gothic windows, wooden balustrades, two high hanging chandeliers, an antique clock, large patterned wall paper, and an elk head above the marble fireplace. The staircase was a bit narrow, but the actors maneuvered it well. Cape audiences are familiar with director Russell Treyz. His stage business and direction for the leading character saved the show from complete tedium. Shad Ramsey choreographed the fight scenes with convincing deftness.
Costumes and lighting
Lisa Zinni, costume designer, gave us real British suits made with double vent jackets and waistcoats (vests). The color of brown and yellow for Wyke's suit contrasted charismatically against Tindle's dull, gray suit, symbolic of the two characters in the first act. Christopher Chambers was right on this week with strong back lighting and mood changes.
Clever, but long
"Sleuth" is part of the variety for the Cape Playhouse season. Although not perfect, it is an unusual piece of entertainment.
The show runs from July 6 through July 18: Monday-Saturday at 8:00 pm; matinees: Wednesday at 2:00 pm; Saturday 7/11 at 4:00 pm; Thursday 7/16 at 2:00 pm at the Cape Cod Center for the Arts on Route 6A in Dennis Village. Call 508-385-3911 for reservations.