By D. A. Blackburn
What’s the old adage about judging a book by its cover? And how does that apply to a playbill? These are the questions resonating in my mind having just seen The Jewish Ensemble Theatre’s latest production, “Sleuth,” by Anthony Shaffer. Of course, in the genre of mystery, things are rarely what they seem, and “Sleuth” takes this idea to its core.
At first glance, JET’s production looks like the quintessential detective story. In promotion, they’ve graced it with the iconic imagery of a magnifying glass, and quoted critics extolling the work as “Ingenious skullduggery…replete with skillful suspense and inventive tricks.” But in actuality, “Sleuth” is something quite different. It is, in reality, a clever psycho-drama, merely masquerading as a mystery.
Shaffer’s story revolves around a pair of gentlemen adversaries. The first, Andrew Wyke (Mark Rademacher), is a wealthy and eccentric author of crime stories, who loves games of all sorts, particularly those of a psychological nature. The second, Milo Tindle (Kevin T. Young), has stolen Wyke’s wife.
The two come together in Wyke’s country home in Wiltshire, England to discuss the terms of an agreement that will satisfy both parties. Wyke, it seems, will gladly divorce his wife, but Tindle must, in turn, steel a trove of jewelry so he can afford to keep her, while Wyke profits from an insurance claim. The story that unfolds takes a variety of twists and turns, but it is hardly a who-done-it. The audience is taken for a predictable ride, as the scheming author exacts his revenge against the man who has stolen his wife, and then, is bested by the young suitor.
Though set in 1971, Shaffer’s script is filled with rich, almost baroque language. Both Rademacher and Young create believable English accents, but at times on opening night, it seemed that Rademacher had difficulty with Wyke’s heavy dialogue. Otherwise, Rademacher’s portrayal is quite good. He creates the character with a pompous, intellectual charm reminiscent of the best Sherlock Holmes.
Young, too, is in good form as Tindle, creating the nervous, suspecting man with subtle nuances. In the show’s second act, however, when Tindle dons a disguise seeking retribution from Wyke, Young’s performance falls flat. His turn as Inspector Doppler is well over the top – as the playwright intended it – but he takes it a little too far to be believable. Though Wyke is ultimately deceived, the ploy relies heavily on fictional biographies and headshots in the show’s program to fool the audience.
The real stars of JET’s production are its designers. The set, created by Pavlo Bosy, is simply beautiful. In conjunction with fantastic properties designed by Diane E. Ulseth, it establishes a perfect abode for the eccentric Wyke, filled with games and novelties ideally suited to the character’s tastes. Moreover, the production employs a variety of well executed special effects. Explosions and gunshots add a good dose of realism to the work, and offset a somewhat uneven sound design, which is thoughtful, but at times poorly executed.
As a total package, “Sleuth” is an intriguing production. It is visually spectacular, and on the whole, well acted, but it is certainly not the average mystery.
The Jewish Ensemble Theatre, DeRoy Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Rd., West Bloomfield. Wed., Thu., Sat. & Sunday through Nov. 23. Tickets: $30-$39. For information: 248-788-2900 or http://www.jettheatre.org.