Sly Oneupmanship

Review of Sleuth, Music Theater of Connecticut

Two men playing head games in an English country estate may seem far removed from the pressures of our times. Indeed, Sleuth, Anthony Shaffer’s captivating comic drama of sleight-of-hand twists and flexible identities dates from the 1970s and tweaks genteel detective fiction. But it also traffics in something that never ceases to fascinate: power, as in, what you can do to others when you have it, and how to get it from others when you don’t.

Sleuth is a whodunit that has been called, more properly, a whodunwhat. Milo Tindle (David Brickman), a London-based travel agent for well-to-do clientele, visits the very successful and very high-handed author Andrew Wyke, a murder mystery writer, at his Tudoresque pile. Milo has been summoned by the elder man, it turns out, in order to discuss how Milo might successfully keep his mistress, Wyke’s wife, in the manner to which she has become accustomed. The scheme involves burglary and an insurance settlement, but before you can say fraud, Wyke is having Milo choose a costume for a kind of fancy-dress felony. And then he proceeds to complicate matters further.

 Milo (David Brickman), Andrew (John Little) (photo: Joe Landry)

Milo (David Brickman), Andrew (John Little) (photo: Joe Landry)

The repartee between the two is swift and sure in Pamela Hill’s well-paced production. As Tindle, David Brickman squirms with poise and even manages to take his host off-guard at times by playing to his vanity. John Little’s Andrew Wyke is a carefully controlled turn as someone who is always toying—with his prose, with his verbal sallies, with his plots and with putting Milo through his paces. Though neither actor plays the scenes of emotional extremity as forcefully as they might, their handling of the quid pro quo jousting over who has the upper hand keeps things lively. The role of Inspector Plodder, in the second act, is particularly well played, and Wyke generally comes off as more cheeky than sadistic, which keeps us a bit sympathetic to his intentions. His is an intelligence always ready to find amusement in the way that events play into familiar patterns of narrative. And it’s Wyke’s level of meta-archness, displayed throughout, that keeps us guessing as to his ultimate motives and even as to how much he is taken in.

How much the audience is taken is is also a key question. For the full effect of the play, it’s best that viewers not already know where it’s going, so if you’ve seen it, don’t tell others much about it beforehand, but do tell them to go. Sleuth, as a play, is a kind of parlor trick that is well worth seeing done well, its ending arriving with all the aptness of a mousetrap’s satisfying click.

 Milo Tindle (David Brickman), Andrew Wyke (John Little) (photo: Joe Landry)

Milo Tindle (David Brickman), Andrew Wyke (John Little) (photo: Joe Landry)

The detailed set, by Jordan Janota, makes more of MTC’s modest playing space than one could expect, and the audience’s closeness to the many props and other visual features adds a compelling intimacy. The themes of the play—such as class tensions between an up-and-comer and a lordly eminence—play out with a fluidity of affect so that sometimes we side more with one, then the other. Eventually, the play seems to shift for the underdog, but, even so, how much one sympathizes with the painfully deliberative Plodder over the high-and-mighty ironies of Wyke, the skilled plot manipulator, will be a matter for the individual viewer. Shaffer writes like a dream of self-consciously pretentious prose, so that much of the battle of wits here is verbal, having to do with a cruel eye for characterization, in Wyke, and a canny eye for loose ends, in Plodder. Milo, on the other hand, offends at the start by being too agreeable and one is in hopes that he’ll get his own back.

 Milo Tindle (David Brickman) (photo: Heather Hayes)

Milo Tindle (David Brickman) (photo: Heather Hayes)

Cunning and crafty, Shaffer’s Sleuth serves up diverting escapist entertainment.

Sleuth
By Anthony Shaffer
Directed by Pamela Hill

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Set Design: Jordan Janota; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Fight Direction: Dan O’Driscoll; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling

Cast: David Brickman, JohnLittle, Philip Farrar, Harold K. Newman, Roger Purnell

Music Theater of Connecticut
November 4-20, 2016