"Sleuth" holds up its end of the long, distinguished line of diabolically clever British murder mysteries in a solid production at Laguna Moulton Playhouse. It doesn't offer edge-of-the-seat suspense--alas, the major plot device is rather transparent for that--but there's still plenty of intrigue in trying to sort out the twists and turns before the actors get there first.
Anthony Shaffer has written more of a psychological thriller than a garden-variety whodunit in this 1970 story of gamesmanship and greed. As with any self-respecting British mystery, there is at least one twist. Here, a successful British mystery writer invites a young neighbor to stop by for a friendly cocktail. What begins as polite chitchat turns personal when it is revealed that the young man is having an affair with the writer's wife and wants to marry her.
It turns out, though, that the writer has no real objections--he has been dabbling in extramarital activities himself. Freedom sounds fine to him--and cheaper too. But the author warns the young man that he is acquiring a woman with expensive tastes, and he offers an ingenious solution. (Ingenuity is, after all, his stock in trade.) He proposes a risky scheme that, if it works, would benefit them both financially. The young man snaps at the bait, and the fun begins.
Under the direction of Joan McGillis, the story efficiently spins its web of surprises with the assistance of some startling special effects. However, this is a script padded with gimmicks, games and gadgets, and occasionally they get in the way of the characterizations. Ralph Richmond is neatly smug as the self-satisfied writer, Andrew Wyke, a man whose cruelty lurks just behind his genial country gentleman facade. Stuart Duckworth is downright Machiavellian as Wyke's adversary, Milo Tindle, the son of an Italian immigrant who still carries around a king-size chip on his shoulder; Duckworth does a good job of letting Milo's defenses slip a little at a time.
Steven Wolff Craig designed the impressive upper-crust British country home with high stone walls, a strategically placed winding staircase and tall, looming windows.
"Sleuth" will play through April 5 at the Laguna Moulton Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Information: (714) 494-0743.