‘Sleuth’ at Olney Theatre Center by Katie Elizabeth Quinn

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“That’s detective fact, not detective fiction,” says one character to another in Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, now playing at Olney Theatre Center. It’s a line that’s repeated more than once, with good reason; the relationship between fact and fiction – true and false – is one of the many relationships Shaffer teases, undermines, and ultimately explodes over the course of this genre-defying play.

Jeffries Thaiss (Milo Tindle) and Bob Ari (Andrew Wyke) in 'Sleuth.' Photo by Stan Barouh.

Lights rise on an elegant home office in gleaming silver and alabaster, in which an aging mystery writer reads aloud from the draft of his latest novel. This is wealthy, established Andrew Wyke (Bob Ari, having a whale of a good time), and he is awaiting the arrival of Milo Tindle (the agile Jeffries Thaiss), who happens to be the man who is cuckolding him. Much to Milo’s surprise, Andrew is not only aware of the affair but delighted by the opportunity to rid himself of his wife, who, he says, “converses like a child of six and makes love like The Abominable Snowman,” and together the two men conceive a gleeful scheme to defraud the insurance company and ensure that both can live happily ever after with their respective mistresses.

This premise, and the dexterous wit of Shaffer’s script, might have given rise to an entertaining enough trifle, a sort of British The Odd Couple; erudite, idiosyncratic aristocrat and fresh-faced, New Money Londoner are thrown together by mutual need, and an unlikely friendship develops amidst a torrent of verbal one-upping. But the burglary project quickly spins off the rails, and it becomes apparent before long that Andrew, who has lived for some time largely in the fictitious world of the 1930s ‘Golden Age of the Detective Story,’ has some rather grandiose ideas about introducing poetry into modern crime.

Bob Ari (Andrew Wyke). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Sleuth originally premiered in 1970, and outgoing Artistic Director Jim Petosa quotes both Harold Pinter and Stanley Kubrick in his Director’s Note, a testament not only to the play’s surprising breadth but to the culture in which it was originally written and produced. Almost imperceptibly, Shaffer’s script spirals downward from the genteel world of Noel Coward and Agatha Christie to (as Pinter’s plays are often called) comedy of menace and unnerving psychodrama.

The artistic team, particularly Scenic Designer Cristina Todesco, has more than a few surprises in store for the audience, and across the board the design is surreally infused with Andrew’s game-playing spirit.

One-liners and visual gags aside, however, the success of Sleuth depends largely on the acuity and charisma of its two leads, and here, I am happy to report, Ari and Thiess deliver magnificently. Though not particularly believable as an exotic Latin lover (which may be more the fault of a self-contradicting script than Petosa’s casting), Thiess is entertainingly dunderheaded as the naïve Milo. His Philistine snobbery about Andrew’s detective novels and earnest self-congratulation each time he successfully deflates Andrew’s pomposity render him a well-rounded sort of dolt, and his initial cheerful vulgarity makes the depths of cruelty to which he later descends all the more chilling.

From the beginning, Ari shows us Andrew’s delight in role – playing as he acts out and embellishes even the story that is taking place before our eyes. He adopts costumes, accents and characters with aplomb and pontificates elegantly all the while, (although on no subject is he more rhapsodically eloquent than on the categorical and inescapable deficiencies of his wife, to Milo‘s enjoyable bewilderment). But there’s a hint of menace in Ari’s performance too, that warns us early on that he may not be altogether the jolly cuckold he presents, and when he is later called upon to render an Andrew humiliated, exhausted, and despairing, he delivers a man so deflated there is a visible sense of having been punctured, drained of everything that makes him himself.

Sleuth is an evening best enjoyed without preconceptions; the audience’s engagement with the characters depends upon sharing their uncertainty about what is real, what is false, and what is about to happen next. No matter what your expectations may be, however, Olney Theater Center’s magnificent Sleuth lives up to the most basic duty of any detective novel – it keeps you guessing until the very end.

Jeffries Thaiss (Milo Tindle). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Running Time: Two hours plus one 15-minute intermission.

Sleuth plays through through July 8, 2012 at Olney Theatre Center – 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.