More often than not, classic thrillers come across as glass-encased museum pieces to today’s theater audiences, what with their arthritic wordplay, creaky plot twists and archaically excessive exposition spouted by dusty archetypical characters. They are more exhibition than entertainment.
And yet, Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth” – which won a Tony Award for best play in 1971 – seems as fresh as ever in this Great Lakes Theater’s staging. Even those who have seen other stage productions, the 1972 movie version of the play or the wholly unwarranted 2007 remake and are familiar with the work’s tightly plotted twists, dramatic turns and how they play out will surely find pleasure in this production.
“Sleuth” tells the tantalizing tale of British blueblood detective-novelist Andrew Wyke’s (David Anthony Smith) revenge against his wife’s young English-bred but Italian-made working class lover, Milo Tindle (Jeffrey C. Hawkins). As he does in his writing, Wyke initiates a clever and caustic game of deception by offering to divorce Marguerite if Milo will help him fake a theft of her jewelry so he can cash in on the insurance. But in the hands of two experienced game players, things soon escalate into all-out psychological warfare.
Director Charlie Fee finds all the humor in the script and lingers just long enough on the playwright’s commentary about the decadent privileged class. But he wisely focuses his attention on the drama and the suspense around which it is securely wound.
He does so without ever tipping his hat at what is to come, which leaves audiences scrutinizing Gage Williams’ densely detailed three-tier rendering of Wyke’s Cloak Manor – with its old-money mahogany staircase, fine furnishings, abundance of book shelves and smattering of amusements, all sorts – for clues. The mysteries that lurk in Williams’ scenic design are aided and abetted by Josh Schmidt and Jesse Klug’s exquisite sound and lighting design, respectively, and Esther M. Haberlen's clever costuming.
Fee uses every inch of Cloak Manor to give mobility and pacing to all the verbal sparring that takes place in this play and to allow his vigorous and dexterous performers to engage in the near-Shakespearean theatricality that Shaffer’s script often requires. And yet, neither Hawkins nor Smith ever overstep the boundaries that retain their characters’ authenticity or undermine their characters’ intelligence. Amidst the chiming of the Grandfather clock and the thunder claps of the storm brewing outside, you can hear the gears turning in their heads as the play progresses and the plot gets increasingly intriguing.
The real fun to be found in “Sleuth” and, particularly, in this Great Lakes Theater production of it is not so much the climactic outcome as the wondrous journey.