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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of the crowned jewels of musical theatre, and is quite possibly musician and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece (with proper credit due to the book by Hugh Wheeler, of course). Since premiering on Broadway in 1979, this show has been broadcast, revived, adapted into a hit film, and licensed for countless performances all across the country; its score has entered the lexicon of great showtunes with selections like “The Worst Pies in London”, “Pretty Women”, “Not While I’m Around”, and “Johanna” being particularly haunting, often recorded, and used in many an audition. Columbus’s Imagine Productions is now tackling this piece after their sterling production of Thoroughly Modern Millie a few months ago, a production better than the show probably deserved. Alas, the situation is quite the opposite this time around.
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is about a barber previously known as Benjamin Barker who has just been released after fifteen years in prison on a trumped up charge, returning to London with revenge on his mind. Judge Turpin is the man who took away Todd’s daughter, Johanna, and caused the apparent death of his wife, Lucy. Todd returns to his former lodgings above Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop and starts up his barber business again, though wielding his beloved straight razors with deadly results. Across his path come Anthony, who rescued Sweeney at sea and falls in love with his daughter; Pirelli, a scheming charlatan and his assistant, Tobias; a beggar woman, always lurking about; and Beadle Bamford, Judge Turpin’s valet.
Something odd is going on with Keith Robinson as Sweeney Todd, a part for which he has the voice and stature. He lacks menace and bite in the part, coming across as friendly instead of fiendish. Why does he smile so much? Surely his exaggerated makeup and odd costume don’t help, as he appears to be Bea Arthur dressed up as Frankenstein’s monster for a very special episode of “Maude”. Mr. Robinson comes alive in the part only sporadically, talented as he is, and I hate to say I found the same to be true (though to a lesser extent) with Jesika Lehner as Mrs. Lovett. Ms. Lehner brings a sexiness to the part that is not unwelcome (I’m not sure there is anything Ms. Lehner can do to avoid that other than to wear a burlap sack), but key moments during her first meeting with Sweeney Todd and the finale are missing beats in which the audience gets a peek into the devious machinations going on in her mind. It’s almost as if both Mr. Robinson and Ms. Lehner are afraid to be truly devilish and repugnant, and it’s a shame to see their obvious talents not focused properly on these roles, one of many things I blame on the director.
The orchestra sounds particularly divine as conducted by Tyler Rogols with musical direction by Ashley Woodard (Imagine consistently has one of the best – if not THE best – group of musicians to play at their shows in Columbus), but the sound of the music almost always drowns out the singing! What’s worse is that some of the performers don’t appear to be properly mic’d or amplified, particularly Tobias (Johnny Robison) whose entire performance is almost completely inaudible; Jesika Lehner’s mic cuts in and out throughout “God, That’s Good” depending on what direction she is facing, deeply impairing her performance as Mrs. Lovett through no fault of her own. I’m not sure exactly what is going on with the sound design, but someone needs to reevaluate things – adjust EQ, replace some microphones, or steer the vocals to a separate set of speakers; so many lines and lyrics are lost because of the varying sound issues.
The two standout performances from this production come from the unlikeliest of places (at least to me) – Elizabeth Zimmerman as Johanna and Kent Stuckey as Judge Turpin. Ms. Zimmerman has an incredibly strong and high singing voice and isn’t hampered by the sound issues, and Mr. Stuckey has a deep gruffness to his voice that is powerful and disturbingly sexy; one almost wouldn’t blame Johanna for picking this Judge Turpin over the squeaky-clean and rather wimpy Anthony (Justin King, who sings beautifully but needs to lose the blue neck kerchief). Honorable mention goes to Brian Horne as quite a fancy and foppish Pirelli, though his performance is also compromised by the poor sound in the scene leading up to his murder; it’s another scene where it isn’t clear what exactly he said to bring about his demise. Ryan Kopycinsky is also a fine Beadle Bamford, particularly funny in the scene where he sings parlor songs when Mrs. Lovett is trying to get rid of him.
Director Ryan Scarlata doesn’t appear to have a firm grasp on how best to handle a show of this size and scale as many sequences (“Poor Thing”, the contest scene with Pirelli, the scenes leading up to and into “A Little Priest” and “God, That’s Good”, and the finale) are difficult to decipher unless one already knows the story (the abduction and rape of Lucy is particularly obscure). I can’t pinpoint exactly where the problem lies in each instance in which the plot isn’t coming across, but surely the minimalist set (just some scaffolding and a few props here and there, though Mrs. Lovett does hang a sign once her shop has been revitalized – and leaves it up even when scenes play out that take place elsewhere) and the lighting cues which change abruptly don’t help the situation, nor does the sound. Some members of the ensemble are also overacting terribly, sticking out like they escaped from an asylum with no one there to reign them in.
A major misstep is having what appears to be the specter of Lucy (Candice Kight, appearing quite ethereal) appear onstage whenever Sweeney commits a murder. Ms. Kight leans in and blows red confetti in place of blood when someone’s throat is slashed (which is a neat idea), but her presence makes absolutely no sense as Lucy is found to be alive later in the show! “Who’s that girl?” I heard people question around me, and I wondered myself until I realized what was going on. When it is revealed that the beggar woman (Michelle Weiser, who projects too much health to be a homeless beggar to me) is Lucy, it doesn’t come across properly because of the presence of Ms. Kight throughout the play. It’s another example of how this production has moments that are only clear to people that know the show intimately while alienating that very same audience at the same time! I don’t even want to go into how the “dead” people simply walk off stage and behind a curtain, making it difficult to suspend disbelief that anyone is in any real danger, something necessary for this show to work.
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a brilliant show, but this production fails to do it justice. The woman next to me kept checking her program, presumably to see how many songs were left until intermission and then how many until the show was over, and that should not be the case with such an superlative piece. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing so many members of this cast in other shows, and it breaks my heart to see so much talent on the stage go to waste. This isn’t a disaster of a production, just a dishearteningly droll and undistinguished one, the first time I can say I’ve been so disappointed in a show by Imagine Productions.
Somehow I always find myself returning to John D. MacDonald, and for good reason; I haven’t been disappointed by one of his novels yet. I was attracted to his work by the mysterious titles and lurid artwork, but shortly after reading my first MacDonald novel I sought out every other book he had written, always in vintage paperback form. I’ve been inching my way through them ever since, rationing them in a way, knowing that once I’ve made my way through all of them that there will be no more.
A Key to the Suite hails from 1962 and is about a man on a mission; Floyd Hubbard has been assigned to evaluate the performance of Jesse Mulaney, an upper level manager in the sales division of a company, while at a convention full of free flowing booze and girls. Mulaney’s a hack and knows it, and the writing is on the wall for his exit from the company. And so he has engaged a high-class prostitute, Cory Barlund, to seduce Hubbard and make a big, embarrassing scene in front of a lot of people to destroy his credibility in the hope that it could help save Mulaney’s job. But things don’t go as planned (do they ever?), and it all comes down to a showdown with the person who has the pivotal “key to the suite.”
I love a story with a scheming hooker, and Cory Barlund is one for the record books. She is at the convention posing as a reporter, but her striking beauty catches everyone’s eye. One of the few convention wives attending comments, “You know, that girl comes on slow. She builds. The more you look, the more you see. Floyd, only a woman could know what kind of a total effort that takes, all the time and thought and care.”
Cory is no pushover either, only agreeing to the framing job as a favor to her madam and after approving of Hubbard. When another person in on the scheme suggests an extra pay day for a tumble, she wryly replies, “Try me again in ten years. By then I may have lost the freedom of choice. That’s supposed to be the standard pattern, isn’t it?”
We learn more about Cory’s background and why she took up the trade, blaming it on a cheating former husband who infected her with syphilis while she was pregnant. She says that it “turned my baby into an idiot. It’s over five years old now. It will never speak or walk or recognize anything or anyone. I have one child, defective, institutionalized.” Her harsh words here go way beyond what I think any woman would ever say about her offspring; it’s a shocking stance though and definitely paints a picture of the kind of woman Hubbard is dealing with. “After the divorce I was trying in an amateur way to prove to every man in the world that I was more useful than every whore in Havana.” Mission accomplished, Cory!
No one describes women like John D. MacDonald, and here is an excerpt of when Hubbard is watching Cory out by the pool and she approaches him:
It may seem like I’ve given a lot away, but trust me when I state that there is a lot more where all of that came from. There are sex scenes written in such a stylish way that it is possible for one not in the know to read them and not be explicitly clear on what is going on! There are also a lot of characters for such a short book, and some have names that didn’t fit the gender I would’ve thought (Cass is a man, Cory is a woman, etc.), but the book is a real slice of corporate life right out of the “Mad Men” era. I found myself wanting to know more about the characters and hoping for the best as it sped on towards an inevitable and violent conclusion.
I was struck by how dated and yet contemporary the novel was, and in equal parts. The stereotypical “good old boys” who are woefully under qualified for positions but are appointed due to their chutzpah are still the types we see today in businesses (and in public office), but the women in the novel are nothing more than wives, whores, or eye candy. It’s a reflection of the time in which it was written, to be sure, and of the environment at the convention. Still, the novel is a quick and exciting read, with just the right amount of spice to keep it on the right side of the sleaze border.
I mainly knew of Dial “M” for Murder because of growing up viewing the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly; I went through all of the Hitchcock films before getting out of grade school. The film is considered second tier Hitchcock, still better than first rate most anyone else, and I had always enjoyed it. The Frederick Knott play from which the film was adapted premiered on Broadway in the fall of 1952 and ran for nearly a year and a half; it closed just a few months before the film version was released. I saw the restored film projected in its original 3-D at the Wexner Center for the Arts this past March, so I had the story fresh in my mind when I attended the Weathervane Playhouse production of Dial “M” for Murder this past weekend. I’ll admit that I was tempted not to go as I had just seen the film again, and that would’ve been a mistake; Dial “M” for Murder perhaps works better as a play, and this is a solid production with its own flavor different from the film.
The story concerns how Tony Wendice, a former tennis pro, coerces a former classmate, Captain “Lesgate” (he has several names we find out), into murdering his adultering wife, Margot. You see, Tony knows about the affair Margot has been carrying on with television writer Max Halliday, and he knows enough about his former school chum to make him compliant in the idea of murder. However, Tony doesn’t plan on how things end up turning out, or that a certain Inspector Hubbard may hold the key (no pun intended) to unraveling the plot.
Patrick Clements plays Tony as all suave and sly, almost too slick to believe. He looks remarkably like Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride, and I was glad to see him as the lead after his clowning around in The Pajama Game a few weeks back. His interpretation was a little too slippery for me as he has to come off as genuinely affectionate towards his wife and above suspicion for the piece to fully work, not like a used car salesman with some nefarious clauses hidden in the fine print. Molly Griggs is Margot, closely hewing to Grace Kelly’s interpretation though perhaps even more vulnerable; her cultured accent is particularly good, and she wears her complicated hairstyle with confidence. Clay Singer, who was Sid to Molly’s Babe in the aforementioned The Pajama Game, plays her beau again as Max Halliday, making the most out of the slight part. Layne Roate is poor, coerced Captain Lesgate, coming off as a real ne’er-do-well while also owning it. Jason Samples as Inspector Hubbard is adept at bringing the audience along to follow his train of thought, quite important in the resolution of this piece. The actor who played the role in the film confused me when I first saw it, but Jason’s lines sprout naturally as he takes in the scene; he genuinely seems to care that the audience be along with him for the ride.
The entire play takes place in the Wendice apartment, elaborately designed by Jeremy Hollis; it is perhaps the most important character in the play. The apartment looks lived in, albeit by affluent tenants, and the requisite window, desk, and doors that open out into the hall are all there as needed by the plot. Great attention appears to have been played in decorating the set as well and including props where they would naturally be found, not as obvious instruments needed for the script. Director Tim Browning and lighting designer Jennifer Sansfacon work well together in creating a tense murder scene with shards of light piecing the outline of the double doors that slowly open to reveal Layne entering the apartment with murder on his mind. The scene is stylish in a way that would only work on stage, and the audience didn’t dare breathe during it.
I will say that the best place to sit for this production is in the center section, even if you’re in the back rows. I moved to the front right for the second half of the show and missed seeing the faces of the actors during some critical moments. Another patron commented that the desk and chair blocked her view when she was seated in the left section, so aim for as close to the center as you can.
There were a few snafus at the performance I attended, though I was told they they only occurred at that Saturday matinee. There is a scene in the first act that requires both doors to the apartment be open so that the placement of a certain key is visible, but this was hidden from most of the audience because one door remained shut, apparently locked in error. The murder scene also played out a bit awkwardly as the scissors fell off of the desk to the floor during the struggle. I have to hand it to Molly and Layne for integrating into their performance as well as they did; Molly lunged off the desk for those scissors with a determination that made me chuckle. I knew the play couldn’t go on unless she got them to defend herself and she surely knew it too, but I’m sure the audience didn’t notice; they were too wrapped up in the proceedings at full attention to notice anything that may have been off.
For someone quite familiar with the movie, I didn’t expect the play to be so enjoyable or engaging. Some of the plot points even played out better in this setting, as I think it was easier to follow just where Tony went awry in his plans in the play. It can’t be easy to stage such a play when a popular film version exists, but director Tim Browning and his fine ensemble have succeeded in making it stand proudly on its own quite capable feet.