Clues abound in `Sleuth'

Thriller: Rep Stage puts Howard Community College's Smith Theatre to good use, but the production falls short on dramatic tension.

Review

Howard Live

March 23, 2000|By Nelson Pressley | Nelson Pressley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Robert Marietta's set for Anthony Shaffer's "Sleuth" at Rep Stage uses the entire height and width of Howard Community College's Smith Theatre, and it's full of clues.

The biggest clue in this huge room, with its dimly lighted corners and central staircase leading to a high gallery, is the abundance of games. The set is dressed by props designer Susan Senita Bradshaw with a dart board, a heavy chess set, Chinese checkers and similar items.

It suggests that this grand English manor belongs to someone with a competitive bent, and that the play -- a well-known thriller made into a 1972 movie with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine -- is going to be dark sport.

And so it is, though more sporty than dark at Rep Stage. Director Kathy Feininger's production has a jaunty edge to it, taking its cue from Shaffer's effusive language (which takes its cue from the mystery genre, in which the detectives and suspects explain things ad nauseam). Shaffer's characters are expansive talkers -- especially Andrew Wyke, the owner of the slightly ominous mansion and host of the deadly game.

Wyke writes a popular line of mystery novels, and he is utterly full of himself. When we first meet him, Wyke -- played with bubbly self-absorption by John MacDonald -- has just ripped another sheet of brilliant plotting (in his opinion, anyway) out of the typewriter. MacDonald's Wyke reads it proudly, acting out the juicy details with vain flourishes.

When Milo Tindle arrives, Wyke converses with the air of a star at center stage. He comes across as a man whose only goal in life is to amuse himself.

Tindle, on the other hand, is a reluctant partner in Wyke's game (a game, as it turns out, of humiliation and revenge). Conrad Feininger plays Tindle with a cool formality that is a thin disguise for fear and suspicion -- justifiable emotions, under the circumstances. After all, Tindle is in enemy territory in Wyke's house, for he and Wyke's wife are lovers -- and Wyke knows it. In fact, it's the topic of their conversation.

Given Wyke's professional gift for fabricating mysteries and his adversarial relationship with Tindle, it's inevitable that the game's stakes will be high. To say more would spoil the fun, though it's easy to guess that the tables will probably be turned a time or two.

The lack of high drama in this table-turning is the only shortcoming in the Rep Stage production. "Sleuth" is famous for its theatrical sleight-of-hand; the reversals are real corkers if the deceptions are convincingly played. What is missing is a degree or two of tension, a sense of increasingly deadly menace between the competitors. That kind of fear is key to the fun; it puts the thrill in the thriller.

There is still fun to be had in this show. In the second act, we're told that the police are about to crash through the door charging someone with murder. As the game takes another twist, you're sure to be scanning that set for clues.

Rep Stage will present "Sleuth" by Anthony Shaffer at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays through April 2. An additional Thursday matinee will be staged at 1 p.m. March 30. Tickets: $18 Fridays, $19 Saturdays, $15 Sunday matinees, $12 Sunday evenings. Thrifty Thursdays: all seats $6 (no additional discounts). Student tickets are half-price, $3 off for senior citizens and groups of six or more. Stages for All Ages special: Buy one adult full-price ticket and get one ticket for a person age 17 or younger free. Information: 410-772-4900.

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