Sleuth (The Carnegie – Covington, KY)

  
I would imagine that a mystery would be one of the more difficult plays to stage effectively as it requires a slight of hand that needs to be sustained for an entire performance, but director Greg Procaccino’s production of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth at The Carnegie seems to defy that hypothesis as it feels effortless and, dare I say it, ebullient? It doesn’t adhere to the tried and true constructs of other thrillers, so perhaps that’s why over forty-five years since its Broadway premiere it remains a classic, in a class all its own.

 

Photo: Mikki Schaffner – (left to right) Rory Sheridan (Miles) and Brent Alan Burington (Andrew)
 
Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth opened on Broadway in the fall of 1970, won the Tony Award for “Best Play,” and ran for three years; it was adapted into a successful 1972 film starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, and then a rather bumbling 2007 Harold Pinter-scripted remake. The story unfolds at Andrew Wyke’s country home in Wiltshire, where he has invited his wife’s paramour, Milo Tindle, for a visit. Andrew appears to approve of his wife cuckolding him and planning to run off with Milo, and he proposes to the young man a scheme involving some valuable jewelry to help the two start their new life together. Can Andrew be trusted? Is Milo really as naive as he seems? Is it all a game, and if so, whose game is it? There’s no way I’m going to spoil any of that for you, but trust me – it’s worth seeing.

 

Photo: Mikki Schaffner – (left to right) Brent Alan Burington (Andrew) and Rory Sheridan (Milo)
 
Brent Alan Burington plays Andrew looking rather scholarly but behaving with mischievous glee. Mr. Burington always seems to be a few paces ahead of Rory Sheridan as Milo, and that’s as it should be for a time. Mr. Sheridan appears so gangly and simple, his cockney accent light enough to be understood but common enough to separate him from Mr. Burlington in class and stature. I felt so sorry for Mr. Sheridan at first, and then my allegiance changed to Mr. Burington in the second act! I’d seen the 1972 film, but I didn’t remember all of the twists and turns; I was genuinely surprised and delighted at the denouement, as were the audience members around me. Mr. Burington and Mr. Sheridan have fine chemistry, bouncing their lines over the net and returning each other’s serves swiftly and with force.

 

Photo: Mikki Schaffner – Rory Sheridan (Miles)
 
The third star of Sleuth is the grand set designed by Ryan Howell complete with a staircase, large stained glass windows, bookshelves, a hidden safe, a creepy, laughing sailor mannequin… It’s all there and functional. So many props are thrown about that I would hate to be the person responsible for cleaning it all up. If there is one flaw it is that the depth of the set and placement of the furniture (including a large trunk that figures in the first act) block some of the action for the first few rows of the orchestra, so I would avoid trying to be seated too close. The environment at The Carnegie is so intimate anyway that I’m sure even the back of the orchestra or mezzanine would work for this show as there is so much to see and take in.

 

Photo: Mikki Schaffner – (left to right) Brent Alan Burington (Andrew) and Rory Sheridan (Milo)
 
There’s something about loud gunshots that shock me into full attention, and I’m sure that I’m not alone in that regard. There is a warning about the gunshots in the lobby, and they aren’t kidding. It isn’t a gun-heavy show, but rarely have I experienced shooting that looked and sounded so authentic in a theatre. It brought a feeling of real danger to the play, which mixed with the humor and trickery made it quite an onery confection indeed.

*** out of ****

Sleuth continues through to November 22nd in The Carnegie at 1028 Scott Boulevard in Covington, KY (about ninety minutes from Columbus, across from Cincinnati), and more information can be found at http://www.thecarnegie.com/wordpress/theatre/tickets-theater

  


   

Audition for Murder (Roundtown Players – Circleville, OH)

I love a mystery, and I also love seeing theatre at unfamiliar venues. This weekend I was able to combine the two when I drove around forty-five minutes south of Columbus to Circleville to attend my first Roundtown Players production, Audition for Murder, in cozy Memorial Hall on East Main Street. I never know just what I’m going to find when I attend a show at a new place, but I’m happy to report that the experience was worth the drive.

Audition for Murder, written by Howard Voland and Keith McGregor, begins with a murder just before open auditions start for a community theatre in the dead of winter. Grace and Doris, two dotty older ladies, are passing through on their way to town when they accidentally veer into a ditch. They stumble upon a quirky cast in the middle of a family rivalry to inherit money from a rich relative’s estate. It’s a regular whodunit, but one filled with humor that is acted out on a mostly bare stage.

The play is pretty corny, but it’s an enjoyable kind of corny suitable for the whole family. The murders (yep, there are a few) aren’t shown graphically, and there is a cartoonish quality to the characters and situations that help keep everything on the right side of taste. I rolled my eyes at some of the humor, but I laughed out loud at some of it too; I wasn’t alone, as the audience sounded entertained to me.

 

Photo: Scott Metzler
 
Director Jenny Rhoads maintains a light approach throughout, even using some perfectly timed bits of prerecorded scoring and sound effects to supplement moments for comic effect. The skill level of the performers is quite varied, but Ms. Rhoads makes sure that they work together to serve the story. She makes sure each character is distinct and their relationship to each other is clear, a basic tenant of storytelling that many bigger companies and productions overlook. There are the occasional flubbed lines and that telltale start-stop-repeat anomaly with line readings signaling inexperience or nerves, but the play takes place at auditions for a community theatre production! What could be a more perfect setting for a lot of hams (and I mean that affectionately) to gather? There are a few performers that express vocal tones ranging from A to A, which makes it tough to suspend disbelief at times, but somehow it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the performance to a detrimental degree. By and large the performers were fairly consistent in their approach and style, which is better than if some people are great and others terrible.

 

Photo: Scott Metzler – Peter Graybeal (Rory)
 
Peter Graybeal as the hopelessly dense Rory is a standout in the cast. Mr. Graybeal has the most physical part, often running across the stage and up and down the aisles of the theatre, and he also has some bits of physical comedy that are far more difficult to pull off than it probably seems, and his voice is strong and carries. His dimwitted portrayal of Rory sure doesn’t paint a pleasant picture of law enforcement in that town, which is all the more reason for Grace (Laura Aume, echoing a second cousin twice removed to Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher) and Grace (Randi Morgan, who milks many of the best comedic moments in the play for all they are worth) to step in and solve the crime. “Murder, She Wrote” it ain’t, and thank goodness for that; this is a lot more fun.

And as for the crime, I have to admit I fell for one of the red herrings in the plot; I didn’t finger the killer, but I’m also not so sure the play is entirely fair as that goes anyhow. Still, it might be fun to attend with friends and compare notes and place bets at intermission as to the identity of the murderer, provided the character you wager on survives to the end (mine didn’t).

  
The biggest takeaway I got from attending the Roundtown Players production of Audition for Murder is a sense of the infectious joy of performing that community theatre can foster. The cast worked together to tell an engaging and humorous story, and in that they succeeded – what more is needed for a light diversion? I wouldn’t advise any of them prepare their Academy Award speeches just yet, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have some time in the spotlight, especially if they are there for the right reasons: to entertain.

**/ out of ****

Audition for Murder continues through to October 10th at Memorial Hall located at 165 East Main Street in downtown Circleville (about forty-five minutes south of Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.roundtownplayers.com

The Case of the Weird Sisters (1943) by Charlotte Armstrong

The strange title and cover art drew me to The Case of the Weird Sisters, a vintage thriller by Charlotte Armstrong, a familiar name as I have other paperbacks written by her with similarly intriguing artwork. Though this is a 1965 paperback reissue via Ace Books, I was surprised to find that the novel was actually originally released in 1943! The artwork is typical pulp that doesn’t really bare any resemblance to the novel within; the sisters aren’t triplets and don’t look alike. Oh, and one isn’t green either.

The story begins when Alice Brennan, a young secretary, agrees to marry the much older (but rich) Innes Whitlock. Alice doesn’t love him, and she’s quite honest about marrying him for his money, but Innes seems to be fine with it as long as she is a good little wife who cooks and cleans. They make an unexpected trip to the home of his three older spinster half sisters, where he lets them know that he is engaged and will be taking over their financial affairs; they collectively have squandered their inheritance, and Innes is done with bailing them out. After knowingly serving their brother meatloaf containing veal (it used to make him terribly sick as a child), Innes and Alice are stranded at the home of the three sisters until his illness passes. And that’s when unfortunate events start happening, as it appears that one of the sisters is out to murder her brother rather than have his fiancée stand to inherit his fortune.

What is interesting is that each of the three sisters has a disability; Gertrude is blind, Maud is deaf, and Isabel is missing an arm. Whether this makes them “weird” as indicated in the title is something that I wouldn’t say is accurate, but that appears to be the intent. It’s refreshing to read about differently-abled people that aren’t sanctified and can have serious personality flaws, something the political correctness police frowns upon nowadays whether it is true or not. They are also referred to at times in the novel as “cripples” as well, a pejorative term not used in today’s more enlightened and polite society.

There is another aspect that is very much of its time and unfortunate: the description and characterization of a Native American named Mr. Johnson. He is of course called an “Indian” and further described as “not a Negro” but having “a flaring line from his nostrils to the tip of his nose that [is] both foreign and familiar,” possessing “dirty fingers” and that he “belongs in the barn,” and described as having a foul “Indian” smell. Sometimes he is just referred to as “the Indian” and nothing more. Most of this kind of talk is in the narrative, not things the characters say outright. There is the implication that one of the three sisters is carrying on with Mr. Johnson and as such she must be “lustful, horrible, disgusting” and having “no moral starch in her.” Mr. Johnson’s ethnicity makes him game for ridicule, and this novel is an unfortunate document representing a popular sentiment of that time.

There are a few coincidences in the plot that defy reality, such as the fact that a former college professor of Alice’s, MacDougal Duff, who is an amateur sleuth, just happens to be renting a room in a guesthouse on the property. Now that’s convenient, isn’t it? Mr. Duff had lost contact with Alice, but here he is renting a room in the home of one of her future in-laws in another town. Of course he and Alice team up to examine the clues and interview the sisters, and their discussions contain some excellent deducements that help to solve the mystery. 

I finished this novel in a day, finding it more entertaining that I had expected despite my reservations once I learned just how old it was. Gone was the expectation of some tawdry moments or rough language, but the basic story and outline of the plot holds up remarkably well. I was able to finger the culprit before the ending, but I didn’t expect just how everything would unravel. Let’s just say there is a strange fact about the Whitlock house that is revealed nonchalantly early on in the novel that figures into the climax, one I certainly never saw coming. This is exactly the kind of mystery novel I like, and it’s a testament to Ms. Armstrong’s skill that it is still a page turner more than seventy years later.

*** out of ****

 

Back of the 1965 paperback reissue

 
Teaser on the first page
  

Slam the Big Door (1960) by John D. MacDonald

It’s awful that it took so long for me to finish this little book. I sent a spare copy to a friend so that we could both read and discuss it, and he finished his ages ago. Oh well, it’s done now.

This is my forth MacDonald novel, and it was originally released in 1960. It has all the elements of the other MacDonald novels that I like: deft descriptions, snappy dialogue, unpredictability. It meanders a bit halfway through, but it is still a good read even if I’d rate it as the lesser of the author’s works that I’ve read to date (my favorite being Where is Janice Gantry?).

The story is about recent widower Mike Rodenska visiting old war buddy Troy Jamison at Jamison’s place on the beach in Florida. While visiting he uncovers a plot to take over a land development of Jamison’s that is about to go belly up while also dealing with Jamison’s caring but absent wife, spoiled and bratty sex vixen of a stepdaughter, and a whore from Jamison’s past. Mike steps in to try to help Troy, but the man is hell bent on destroying everything with his alcoholism and penchant for a certain woman who led him down a similar path years earlier.

My favorite parts of the novel involve Mike and the wayward woman that his buddy Troy just can’t keep away from, Jerrana Rowley. MacDonald has a way of painting a picture that would surely infuriate women today with how cutting his observations could be, as the women in his novels tend to either be Madonnas or whores.

This is the way she is referred to after maybe five years of hard living, going from place to place before re-entering Troy’s life again. The initial description of her wasn’t flattering either, but this latter synopsis is particularly vivid and biting. And yet, the character of Jerrana still has a bit of charm in her dialogue and doesn’t come off as completely rotten.

This is another description that made me take notice. In this scene, Mike goes to Jerrana’s cheap and foul bungalow looking for Troy. This is how he describes the state of the place.

What exactly does “female” smell like? I’m sure there are many people who know, but to put that adjective between burned food and urine? Classy.

The novel reaches a rather satisfying conclusion even if it does wrap itself up a bit too easily. Still I enjoyed it as decidedly second rate MacDonald, which is still better than most first rate anyone else.

**/ out of ****