Sleuth | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Apple Tree Theatre Company

Mysteries seem singularly maladapted to the stage; novels, movies, and even radio plays have the advantage over stage plays in that they can follow the plot wherever it may twist. But the playwright is stagebound: the best he or she can provide (in cinematic terms) is a series of medium-long shots. No close-ups of incriminating clues--the bit of dried blood, the misplaced shoe--and no cutting between scenes to build tension. That means that for a mystery to work onstage, the characters, the dialogue, and the mystery itself must be intriguing, because there will be little else to keep us involved.

Anthony Shaffer's masterfully crafted Sleuth is a thriller perfectly suited to the stage. He provides us with three fascinating characters, plenty of witty dialogue, and a plot complicated enough to keep our minds engaged.

Sleuth concerns Andrew Wyke (Jack McLaughlin-Gray), an eccentric, egotistical English writer whose claim to fame is a series of mysteries written about an amateur detective in the Lord Peter Wimsey style, St. John Lord Merridew. In Wyke's spare time, he loves nothing more than playing elaborate mind games. "I have played games of such complexity," he brags, "that Jung and Einstein would have been proud to participate." The fact that these games sometimes verge on the sadistic--as Wyke puts it, "the surest way to a man's heart is through humiliation"--hardly stirs his slumbering conscience.

The first act of Sleuth follows the twists and turns of one of Wyke's more humiliating games, involving one Milo Tindle (Ray Frewen), a broke but attractive fellow who is having an affair with Wyke's wife, Marguerite. Wyke invites Tindle over to his manor house, and then after a little chitchat and a few drinks, abruptly reveals why he has asked him: "I understand you want to marry my wife." To which Tindle can only reply, choking on his scotch, "Well . . . well, yes, with your permission, of course."

Wyke then delivers a cock-and-bull story about wanting to help Tindle keep Marguerite "in the style to which she wasn't accustomed before she met me but now is." His plan: a faked burglary in which Tindle steals Wyke's collection of insured jewelry (worth 135,000 pounds) and sells it to a fence in Europe for 90,000 pounds. At first Tindle is skeptical about this "scummy little plot to defraud the insurance company," but Wyke wins him over, and soon has Tindle "disguised" in a clown suit, running through the house and making it look ransacked. Once Tindle has pocketed the jewelry, and Tindle and Wyke have faked a scuffle (in which Tindle suffers two very real blows), Wyke reveals his true plan: "I'm going to kill you," he tells Tindle, pointing a gun at him.

"I suppose this is some sort of game," Tindle laughs nervously. "Yes," Wyke admits, "we've been playing it all evening. It's called, "You're going to die and no one will suspect murder."' As a final humiliation, Wyke makes Tindle put on the clown mask, just before firing the gun at Tindle's head. Thus ends the first act.

The second act begins with the entrance of Detective Doppler, who has come to investigate the mysterious disappearance of one Milo Tindle. Suffice it to say that Doppler is on to Wyke's sadistic ways, and has a few more tricks up his sleeve than one would suppose from his blunt and rustic demeanor.

Of course, all of Shaffer's work would be for nothing in the hands of an inept cast. Happily this is not the case in Apple Tree Theatre's production. Both McLaughlin-Gray and Frewen compare favorably with the two actors most closely associated with Sleuth--Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, who performed the roles in the very faithful 1972 film adaptation of the play.

McLaughlin-Gray makes Wyke a bit more flamboyant than Olivier's subdued mystery writer, adding just the touch of madness Olivier's interpretation lacked but that the role sorely needs. Otherwise Wyke becomes nothing more than an angry, vengeful cuckold, which is hardly motivation enough for his sadism. McLaughlin-Gray makes us see Wyke's serious emotional problems, not least of which are his crippling selfishness and his almost psychotic inability to distinguish fact from fantasy. Yet McLaughlin-Gray reveals Wyke's sickness with a masterful slowness, allowing us to be first charmed by the man's wit and imagination and, only later, appalled by his coldness and cruelty.

Ray Frewen, too, performs quite well as Tindle. It is hard not to feel sympathy for this more or less innocent man, as he is first humiliated and then threatened by Wyke. Frewen's Tindle pales, however, beside McLaughlin-Gray's malevolent Wyke. But of course, as we can plainly see in works as diverse as the Bible, Doctor Faustus, and Paradise Lost, the devil always has the best lines.

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