Theater Review: “Sleuth” at Olney Theatre

Anthony Shaffer’s English murder mystery offers a reliably old-fashioned evening out.

By: Jane Horwitz

As soon you lay your eyes on the diamond-shaped set (designed by Cristina Todesco) upon which Sleuth unfolds at Olney Theatre—a shiny, sterile great-room in a great house, done up in a possibly psychotic blend of French provincial and ultramodern—you know you’re watching the kind of theater your parents and grandparents savored. And let us not forget the red-and-gold smoking jacket worn by the owner of the country manse, which he sports as he nibbles caviar and crackers washed down with Champagne as Beethoven booms on the stereo.

Yes, we are in the land of the English-drawing-room mystery, turned slightly on its head in Anthony Shaffer’s verbose but engaging 1970 psychological thriller about a genteel writer of mystery novels and the faceoff he instigates with his wife’s young boyfriend. The play was a hit in London and then on Broadway, and is frequently revived. It has also generated two film adaptations, the 1972 version of which starred Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. Thirty-five years later, Caine took on the older role opposite Jude Law, in a version directed by Kenneth Branagh with a screenplay by Harold Pinter, no less. It didn’t much work, but Pinter and Branagh managed to take a very mainstream piece and make it deeply weird.

There’s nothing too weird about Olney’s Sleuth, which runs through July 8. Outgoing longtime artistic director Jim Petosa has staged it crisply, handsomely, and in a manner true to playwright Shaffer’s original intent—as a check-checkmate duel between genteel age and blue-collar youth in which age aims to win by sheer superiority, not muscle.

Mystery novelist Andrew Wyke (Bob Ari) invites his wife’s lover, Milo Tindle (Jeffries Thaiss), to his country house for a civilized chat between gents. The conversation turns rather quickly, however, to money. Wyke has concocted a scheme: He and Milo will stage a jewelry heist in the house that will enable Milo to support Wyke’s wife in the style to which she has become accustomed, but will also pay Wyke reparations for his loss of a mate in the form of insurance money. It doesn’t take much to convince Milo that this is a fraud worth committing, and it’s too late to stop once he realizes that Wyke has far more dubious plans a’brewing.

The play hits its pinnacle when Wyke reveals his class snobbery, ethnic and religious prejudice, and reactionary view of the welfare state England had become by 1970 (when the country’s rock stars were moving here to avoid being taxed at 70 or 80 percent). That’s when the dialogue really cooks and when his scorn and condescension rain dramatically down on Milo, a struggling travel agent who’s the half-Jewish son of a watch repair man. The life-or-death games of cat-and-mouse, each one played with stakes a bit higher than the last, are fun, too, but they’re formulaic. Wyke’s venom is not.

Casting of the leads (there are three supporting roles, as well) is crucial in Sleuth, and the pairing of Ari and Thaiss, while solid, doesn’t crackle. Ari suits the play best: His Wyke is a cagey, pompous fellow with a prosperous paunch, accustomed to getting his way. He shifts from jovial to vicious to solicitous on a sixpence. Thaiss, an Olney regular who has given one fine performance there after another (most recently in The 39 Steps), is slightly miscast as Milo. The younger man needs to project a bit more of the street fighter as he schemes to save himself from Wyke’s trickery and get some revenge, too; instead, he feels too benign and passive.

Then again, Sleuth is not merely a talky, occasionally tedious old-fashioned play. It is also a well-oiled theatrical machine: Wind it up and watch it go. Olney’s production, even with its imperfections, will keep you spinning along with it right to the end.

Sleuth is at Olney Theatre Center through July 8. Running time is about two hours and 15 minutes, including intermission. Tickets ($26 to $54) are available via Olney’s website.