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June 24, 2012

Olney Theatre revisits the twists and turns of 'Sleuth'

After more than 40 years, Anthony Shaffer's "Sleuth" holds up pretty well in the crime play genre.

Sure, it creaks a little here and there, but it still satisfies with its verbal sparring, its unashamed theatricality. That point is reiterated by the revival currently at the Olney Theatre Center.

The production's assets start with Cristina Todesco's handsome, white-dominated set design, complemented by Daniel MacLean Wagner's lighting. It's far from the traditional British manor house.

Here, everything is sleek and chic, right down to a floor safe that pops open by remote control. The look is rather clinical, but ...

that fits the personality of Andrew Wyke, the toff-ish mystery novel writer who believes his mind to be noble and superior.

Wyke plans to demonstrate his acuity to Milo Tindle, a young man who has been invited over. After a minute or two of small talk, Wyke casually says to his guest, "I understand you want to marry my wife." Let the games begin.

Anyone who has seen "Sleuth" before on the stage or in its cinematic incarnation will likely find a return visit less of a thrill. Once you are in on plot's secrets -- a sign in the Olney lobby asks patrons not to reveal the ending to anyone else -- the interest lies more in how involving the cast is, how effectively the biggest twists and turns are executed.

At the performance I saw, actors hesitated over the occasional line and came up a few degrees short of genuine emotional heat in some key moments. At the risk of giving too much away, I should also mention that a scene involving a disguise is not quite convincing enough, which limits the crucial punch.

That said, there's an effective momentum overall in this production, guided by the company's outgoing artistic director Jim Petosa. And the play's biggest peaks, especially the Act 1 finale, are delivered with a good deal of flourish.

(Music plays a minor, telling role in the staging -- bubbly Rossini to launch the play, weightier Beethoven to underline the shifts in mood and consequence.)

Bob Ari fills out a smoking jacket authoritatively, but his portrayal Andrew doesn't always ring as true. He seems a little too spring-loaded early on, so the loss of cool later doesn't hit home as pointedly.

Still, Ari captures the character's preening, primping side neatly, and relishes the many tart zingers that animate the script ("Sex is the game, with marriage the penalty").

Jeffries Thaiss is adept at conveying Milo's mix of naivete, ambition and vulnerability. He also achieves considerable expressive nuance and power in the big Act 2 speech that turns a whodunit into a who-won-it.

"Sleuth" runs at Olney Theatre Center through July 8.


Posted by Tim Smith at 1:54 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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