With a zippy production of Anthony Shaffer’s 1970 thriller Sleuth, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park has launched a year-long 50th anniversary celebration.
In 1959 some visionaries cleared groundskeeping gear out of a disused Shelterhouse on an Eden Park hilltop and the adventure began. Now, after nearly 500 productions, eight artistic managements, three or four renovation and expansion projects and two richly deserved Tony Awards, the Playhouse thrives — on two stages — still on top on its hilltop.
Likewise, almost 40 years after its 1,200-performance Broadway run, Sleuth survives and thrives under Michael Evan Haney’s crafty direction — surprises and intricate trickery intact. Further, while keeping the thrills chilling, Haney instilled some nicely leavening humor.
Shaffer constructed a clockwork plot (none of which can be revealed here) that both celebrates and mocks British country house whodunits of the 1930s — those witty, mind-bending thrillers in which brilliant amateur sleuths pit themselves against brilliant games-playing murderers while plodding cops stumble about without a clue.
Since the play had a designedly old-fashioned feel when new, it can all feel just as new now that it’s older.
Leisure class gentleman and mystery writer Andrew Wyke (Munson Hicks) invites working class travel agent Milo Tindle (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend) to his home for drinks and a chat. It seems that Tindle is having an affair with Wyke’s estranged wife. Wyke is offended by this. Tindle is in no wise apologetic.
Conflict thus defined, the games can begin on a dandy Paul Shortt set as full of nooks and crannies as the script.
Haney matched up finely capable people in Sleuth’s leading roles, both of them new to Cincinnati audiences. Hicks exudes class and intellectual superiority, seeming utterly secure in his superciliousness. Goodfriend makes Tindle sincere and forthright but no less capable of guile and gamesmanship.
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