‘Sleuth’ promises puzzles aplenty at Village Theatre

January 11, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Village Theatre MJ Sieber, as Milo Tindle (left), and David Pichette, as Andrew Wyke, enact a scene from the Village Theatre’s production of ‘Sleuth.’ By Jon Pai

The stage thriller “Sleuth” presented a mystery to the director.

Director Martin Charnin hoped to ferret out a copy of the 1972 film adaptation — a whodunit starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine.

The search turned up only a single DVD. The cost: $120. The catch: The version featured Bulgarian subtitles.

The surprise is appropriate as Charnin and the “Sleuth” cast prepare to unspool turnabout after turnabout in the Village Theatre presentation.

“Sleuth” centers on a cat-and-mouse game between upper-crust mystery novelist Andrew Wyke and the lowborn Milo Tindle. The mystery unfolds — in dialogue as sharp as a Ginsu — at a graceful house in the English countryside.

The storyline is intricate — tug on a single plot thread and the entire tapestry unravels.

“It’s a genre that really doesn’t exist anymore — that kind of thriller cut from the Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, Poirot bolt of cloth,” Charnin said. “If you’re lucky, you’ll find something on PBS, but you’re never going to find this kind of a piece on network television.”

“Sleuth” opens Jan. 20 at the downtown Issaquah theater. The lighthearted musicals “Anne of Green Gables” and “Iron Curtain” flank the thriller. “Sleuth” is the lone play in a musical-focused season.

Though the topic sounds as heavy as a dictionary, the director and actors said “Sleuth” is fun, in part due the sharp dialogue and to a focus on games throughout the piece.

“This is a play that is riddled with puzzles and language,” Charnin said. “It’s a very text-driven play.”

The set features a chessboard arranged on a coffee table — a nod, perhaps, to the legendary composer Stephen Sondheim.

“Sleuth” scribe Anthony Shaffer once said Sondheim, a fan of games and puzzles, inspired the Wyke character. Elements from Sondheim’s apartment in Manhattan resurfaced as accoutrements on the “Sleuth” set.

The nail-biter debuted on Broadway in November 1970. The initial run earned the Tony Award for Best Play. Then came the successful film and a less-lauded 2007 remake.

The classic thriller — “Sleuth” pulls surprise after surprise on the audience — is less common in fiction 41 years after the Broadway debut.

“The art of withholding is an endangered species,” Charnin said. “I believe that one of the great tricks in the theater is learning how to cut.”

MJ Sieber, a Seattle actor cast as Tindle, last appeared at Village Theatre in “Barefoot in the Park” in 2007. The role in “Sleuth” presents a challenge for the cast — and a prize for audiences.

“My hope as a theatergoer is that I am surprised by what I see, whether it’s an actor doing something I didn’t know they could do or story taking me to a place I didn’t know,” he said.

David Pichette, a respected Seattle actor in the Wyke role, said the effect is timeless.

“The irony is, the more au courant a play tries to be, the quicker it dates,” he said.

Pichette recalled seeing the original production in London. The mystery “delivered the goods” in the end, despite a tired matinee performance.

“It’s the kind of satisfying trick that, if you get into it, you will really feel rewarded at the end of the evening,” Charnin said.

Pichette — last seen as Polonius in “Hamlet” for the Seattle Shakespeare Co. — debuts on the Village Theatre stage in the Wyke role. Though a newcomer to the theater, Pichette has appeared alongside “Sleuth” cast member Sieber in numerous Seattle productions.

Sieber serves as a sparring partner for Wyke as the characters wield words like swords.

The familiarity the actors share removes the edge from the insults.

“That allows you all of the trust that you need to completely eviscerate one other in terms of your characters, because you don’t have to keep a little, protective shell,” Pichette said.

The cast members said the result is a conclusion as neatly wrapped as a Christmas gift.

“There’s payoffs after payoffs after payoffs that you didn’t suspect were coming,” Sieber said. “They do just keep coming and coming.”

If you go

‘Sleuth’

  • Village Theatre — Francis J. Gaudette Theatre
  • 303 Front St. N.
  • Jan. 20 – Feb. 27
  • Show times vary
  • $20 – $60
  • 392-2202 or www.villagetheatre.org

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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