Kristi Scott, the managing director of the ProArts Theater, has been asking local theater critics for weeks to keep a lid on the BIG SECRETS of “Sleuth,” the new Jason Strahn-directed thriller. It’s an understandable and thoughtful request, though there’s more to it than that. Really, the surprises in Strahn’s production are so well executed and expertly timed, it would be a shame for anyone to ruin their shock value. In addition, audiences willing to partake in the fun of keeping mum on potential “spoilers” are treated to a master class of performance by Dale Button and Brian Connolly, the leads of this fiendish, enthralling night of great theater.
The plot of Anthony Shaffer’s classic mystery: an older gentleman named Andrew Wycke (played by Button) entertains an uneasy houseguest named Milo Tindle (played by Connolly). The conversation is initially pleasant, until Wycke cheerfully declares his knowledge of Tindle’s secret relationship with his wife. What starts as an increasingly prickly discussion turns into a game of one-upmanship, as Tindle’s willingness to partake in Wycke’s “game” results in a test of limits and endurance in both of them. Later, an intuitive Inspector Doppler (played by Jack Witworth) appears, adding further tension to Wycke and Tindle’s test of wits.
“Sleuth” explores how men are constantly performing for one another and, whether declared out loud or not, partake in chest bumping matches of dominance on a daily basis. It’s also about the ignorance of believing someone to be a lesser person based on monetary success; at one point, a character states that Wycke lives “in a world of coldness and class hatred.” In Shaffer’s hands, the greatest misstep in a game of wits is to underestimate the drive of your opponent. Finally, if “Sleuth” is about anything else, it the joy of acting, a quality that is illuminated by the top tier work of its cast.
Strahn clearly gets this play and gives Shaffer’s durable and timely premise a wicked workout. Casting is everything for a show like this and the actors are amazing. Button’s work is simply masterful, shaping a portrait of a man who is bemused, canny and quite evil; he makes Shaffer’s dialogue sound downright musical at times (a quality I’ve never experienced before in any previous interpretation). Connolly is impressive, showing us how Tindle’s extended encounter with Wycke shapes him and tests his confidence. Much of the show is just Button and Connolly and it’s a joy to watch these two actors go toe-to-toe and deliver on the wild possibilities within Shaffer’s yarn.
Ally Shore’s set design is striking, creating the feel of Wycke’s home as a glossy shrine to himself. The costumes (by Scott) and props (provided by Scott, Shore, Marji Tibbett, Barbara Sedano and Aubrey May) are, likewise, exactly right. In particular, the pendulum of a clock in the background of the second act feels like a harbinger of what’s to come. So does the telling photo of a happy couple, a framed picture that appears more menacing as the play unspools.
Some great stage effects provide some startling moments, though the less said about them, the better. It goes without saying that, the less you know about “Sleuth,” the more you’ll enjoy it. I keep encountering theater lovers who are confusing this with Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap,” a terrific play that, nevertheless, opened eight years after “Sleuth.” Both are terrific, though I’d give “Sleuth” the edge for being much harder to perform. It’s not often that “Sleuth” is performed, which is just one reason Strahn’s great production needs to be experienced and savored as soon as possible.
Sleuth is playing at the ProArts Playhouse (located at Azeka Marketplace next to Taco Bell) until June 23rd. Tickets are available at www.proartsmaui.com or 808-463-6550.