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a Murder Mystery
by Anthony Shaffer

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Woodruff Art Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 2527

SHOWING : October 10, 2007 - November 04, 2007



In this classic "whodunwhattowhom," Andrew Wyke has invited his wife's lover to his country estate for a civilized chat about adultery, burglary, and murder.

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The Case of the Weary Plot
by Dedalus
Thursday, October 25, 2007
“Sleuth” by Anthony Shaffer is one of those humdinger thriller plots from the seventies that featured characters trying to fool each other and the audience at the same time. I’ve always enjoyed it because it has a raft of appeal even when you know the “gimmick” – tart dialog, whipcrack humor, pointed critique of a certain post-war class-conscious British mindset, and a comeuppance ending that appeals to our sense of justice (in effect, all the characters get “what they deserve”).

The Alliance Theatre has mounted a new version, staged it on a magnificent country-estate set, cast it with actors who dive into their roles with the relish of sharks in a chumfield, and almost blow it all with some conceptual choices that just don’t work.

Now, let me see if I can finish this without giving away the “gimmick” to those few of you who have never seen this play or its movie versions (yes, there is a new movie of it coming out within the next couple weeks).

Andrew Wyke (excellently played – in the literal sense – by David de Vries), a writer of British Detective novels, has invited his wife’s lover, Milo Tindle (Carl Cofield), to his country estate for a civilized chat about adultery. Through an oddly convincing series of unconvincing plot contrivances, there is soon a burglary plot afoot, footprints in the flowerbed, gunshots in the study, blood on the banister, and a visit from a constable who seems as if he comes from one of Andrew’s books.

One of the ideas that should have worked is the casting of an African American actor in the role of Milo. Mr. Cofield does a wonderful job, and, his race adds a new element to the play’s class-conscious criticisms. And, for those who know the play, it provides an anticipatory element I refuse to get into at this time. It may have been a bit of overkill to also make him Jewish, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. The problem is, there is a payoff that isn’t very well done, and I can’t really discuss how or why it doesn’t work without telling you too much. So let me just say, it’s a good idea that should have paid off better.

The idea that really doesn’t work and which almost torpedoes the entire enterprise is the updating of the play to 1999. Yes, I’m sure bigoted snobs like Andrew probably still exist, especially in upper-class country estates, and the contrast between his old manual typewriter and his modern CD player is nice. The problem is, by moving the plot forward in time, it’s a bigger stretch to associate Andrew with that post-war mind-set that dominated the original play. It also removes a level of sub-text by making his fondness for “the golden age of detective fiction” something he read about, rather than something he actually experienced. And, by giving Milo an African background, that character now seems too anachronistic – he seems less a contemporary 2nd-generation immigrant and more a contrived construct of a playwright stuck in the fifties and sixties.

Another problem is the character of Inspector Doppler. As played by Atlanta newcomer Melvin Phairos, he has an exaggerated “country accent” that screams artifice, and a badly-done make-up job (apparent from my vantagepoint in the back of the house) that makes his real role obvious to anyone without glaucoma. That the house was filled with gasps at his “reveal” is, I suppose, evidence of Mr. Phairos’ ability to convince in spite of these over-the-top distractions (which I may have noticed solely because I know the plot too well). The cast is filled out by Marshall Roberts and Jordan Taylor, who do surprisingly pedestrian work in roles I always found forgettable in the best productions.

Sadly, this production made me realize that this plot is getting weary with age. It doesn’t provide too many challenges to “the little gray cells.” There is very little for a mystery buff to figure out here – the gimmick is a plot device for the playwright to reveal, not a puzzle for the audience to solve. And, for a play about plotting and games and competition and one-upmanship, this is becoming a losing gambit.

-- Brad Rudy (

Afternote: In the new film, director Kenneth Branagh and script adapter Harold Pinter have also updated the plot to the new century, and changed Andrew’s obsession with games to an obsession with technology. I’m skeptical, but I am looking forward to see if the updates work better than they do here.


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