Monday, March 1, 2021

485. SLEUTH. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Keith Baxter, Anthony Quayle.

SLEUTH [Comedy-Drama/British/Mystery/Two-Characters] A: Anthony Schaffer; D: Clifford Williams; S/C: Carl Toms; L: William Ritman; P: Helen Bonfils, Morton Gottlieb, and Michael White; T: Music Box Theatre; 11/12/70-10/13/73 (1,222)

Anthony Quayle, Keith Baxter.

Sleuth was one of the biggest straight-play hits of the decade, although it was the first  by Anthony Shaffer, twin brother of Peter (Equus, Amadeus, etc.). Its premiere had been at England's Theatre Royal, Brighton.

A spoof of the Agatha Christie school of whodunits, it has a serious underside as well. As Shaffer explained it, “The subtext is nightmarish. The whole idea of people committed to a games situation. They’re fairly sinister people. If there is a focal point, it’s that if people take fantasy for reality, and act upon it, it must end in disaster.”

For the majority of critics the play was capable of being enjoyed as a fine example of the very genre it lightly satirized. In T.E. Kalem’s words, it is “a flawless murder mystery, . . . urbanely clever, unashamedly literate, clawingly tense and playfully savage. If it is not the best play of its genre ever, it is neck and neck with the best.”

Keith Baxter, Anthony Quayle.

The action occurs in the manorial British home (packed with bizarre props) of middle-aged mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Anthony Quayle), to which comes Milo Tindle (Keith Baxter), a young travel agent and the secret lover of Wyke’s wife. The pair engage in a prolonged battle of wits that constitutes the essential plot. Trick upon trick is played by one upon the other, and the audience is as much the dupe as are the men themselves. Elaborate costume and makeup disguises constitute one important part of the charm. The listing of several additional character and actor names in the program is designed to further confuse the theatregoer. Sleuth is one of those plays where the management requests you not to divulge the ending to your friends.

Anthony Quayle.

Clive Barnes appreciated it as “one of the most purely entertaining plays of many a season,” but a few, like Harold Clurman, while recognizing its skill, found it not meaty enough for their tastes. John Simon acknowledged the pure cleverness with which “this superficially most enjoyable play” was constructed, and delighted in the author’s “outrageous verbal facility [taken] to its witty, irreverent, rococo extreme,” but Burton Supree was offended by Sleuth’s “sledgehammer school of acting and wit,” and walked out at the break.

Sleuth is a tour de force opportunity for its stars, providing Baxter and Quayle, both distinguished British actors, with the makings for what Simon deemed “unabashedly, gloriously theatrical performances.” Barnes commented: “Mr. Quayle, grizzled, quizzical and outrageously eccentric, plays a man given to jokes, with a pleasantly grim, slightly paranoid seriousness. Mr. Baxter, urgent, hysteric and, at times rather easily scared, matches Mr. Quayle point for point until death does them part, or tries to.”  

Quayle was succeeded by Paul Rogers, George Rose, and Patrick Macnee, while Baxter’s successors were Brian Murray, Donal Donnelly, Jordan Christopher, and Curt Dawson. An idea of the acting competition the play establishes can be gained by recalling that the stars of the 1972 movie version were Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, one at the peak of an amazing career and the other, much younger, on a trajectory to comparable success.

Sleuth walked off with the Tony for Best Play; Baxter won both an Outer Critics Circle Award and a Drama Desk Award; Quayle did likewise; Clifford Williams copped a Tony nomination for his direction; and William Ritman snared the Tony for his lighting.