Having first won a Tony Award as a play by Anthony Schaffer in 1970, “Sleuth” became the final film to be directed by the legendary Joseph Mankiewicz starring Lawrence Olivier and Michael Caine in 1972. In 2007, during a period in which he was regularly running off the rails, director Kenneth Branaugh attempted a completely rewritten version adapted by Harold Pinter, which did not fare so well.
Can a play turned into a well-known film (and later a little known failure) still hold its own on stage 40 years later? Based on the production currently underway at the Olney Theatre, the answer would be a resounding, “Yes!”
“Sleuth” is a two man tour de force. An excellent piece of writing, the script requires two actors well-cast and tuned in to one another as closely as the instruments in a classical string quartet. Much of the play revolves around crime fiction, particularly that of Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. The movement of the play keeps the audience off balance most of the evening as the action careens from one deception to the next in the finest tradition of mystery writing.
Bob Ari takes the role of Andrew Wyke, a well-to-do writer of crime fiction who, in an apparently civilized act, invites his wife’s lover to his well-appointed abode in the English countryside to make sure the younger man (Jeffries Thaiss as Milo Tindle) is completely aware of his new lover’s voracious appetite for the good life — emphasis on the word “apparently.” The delight in this particular piece is not being quite sure what is true at any given moment.
Both Ari and Thaiss play their respective roles superlatively. Ari shifts gears in play acting various characters from his crime fiction without missing a beat and when it is his turn to be the catbird on the hot seat, he sweats with the best of them.
Thaiss starts out a little slowly but comes on strongly in unexpected ways as the play moves through its twists and turns. More importantly, the duo works together seamlessly. The give and take so necessary to maintaining the believability of the moment (which could change in the next moment) is rock solid and one can tell the two are enjoying the acting challenge “Sleuth” presents.
“Sleuth” continues a run of time-tested theatrical favorites that the Olney Theatre has done a bang up job of producing. It is also quite likely the final piece of directing we will see from Jim Petosa, the outgoing artistic director. In concert with scenic designer, Cristina Todesco, Petosa has made some significant “adjustments” to the setting for the play. If you remember anything of the movie or went to see a staged production based on the original script, be ready for something completely new and different. Anachronistic to say the least, the set is a mixture of modern, sleek looking metal and plastic furniture mixed in with traditional Queen Anne period pieces almost entirely white with some black accents and completely uncluttered. Adding further to the quizzical nature of the setting is the use of high tech remote controls thrown together with a dial telephone.
Incoming artistic director Martin Platt has just released Olney’s 2013 season. It features nine productions in all including three musicals and what promises to be some lively imported classics brought in “…by one of New York’s most innovative and compelling theatre companies.” Platt will keep himself fully occupied by directing three of the scheduled offerings.
Contrary to reports that the Olney would continue to stage only the “tried and true” as a means of bolstering their box office, Platt clearly intends to challenge audiences with a little innovation and imagination. A new direction under new leadership can be quite exciting. We can only stay tuned and see what the 2013 season brings.
For now, the two and a half hours of “Sleuth” fly by as one is completely caught up in the mystery and intrigue delivered flawlessly by two fine actors.
Also included in the cast are Seth Fisher as Inspector Doppler, Ryan Hirsh as Detective Sergeant Tarrant and James Tiller as Police Constable Higgs.