Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Review of "Sleuth" - Cape Playhouse

The Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts is the oldest continuing summer theater in the U.S. Knowing that, and knowing that Henry Fonda and Robert Montgomery began their careers here in the summer of 1928, along with another first-timer who also ushered, Bette Davis, is part of the experience of attending a play at the Cape Playhouse on a warm summer night.

(c. 1940s photo.)It goes along with the rough broad-beam rafters in the peaked barn-like ceiling above, and the wooden floors, the wooden benches reminiscent of when founder Raymond Moore dragged (not by himself, surely) a former Unitarian meeting house to this sand-and-scrub pine lot along scenic Route 6A. This is no Cineplex, no grand beaux arts palace. It’s what summer theater used to be in an age when the greatest actors and actress of the day spent their summers playing in barns, and boathouses, tents, and old meeting houses.

A peculiar delight to sit on your bench, glance at the heavy rough oak rafters above, at the plush red curtain ahead, and imagine a young Bette Davis showing a perhaps much less-awed audience where to sit. A little of the shine is diminished today when you see a bored-looking young usher jerking his head and telling two elderly ladies with cardigans around their shoulders, “You guys are over here.”

Note to young people ushering, waiting tables, or running checkout stands in stores: ladies are always “Ma’am” and men are always, “Sir”, and should never be referred to as anything else except “ladies” or “gentlemen.”

I feel pretty sure even a tough gal like Bette Davis would have known that.

Another thing while we’re on the subject, the witless and lazy expression, “Have a good one” can be retired at any time.

Now, back to work. The Cape Playhouse just wrapped up its production of “Sleuth” by Anthony Shaffer. Directed by Russell Treyz, the show starred Peter Frechette and Malcolm Gets.

Yoshinori Tanokura designed the multi-level set, which featured a high narrow staircase to an upper level landing, large arched windows, and dark wood paneling, illustrating an ornate English country house. The fire place, the large elk’s head mounted above it, the crossed swords on the wall, all give us the illusion of English aristocracy, wealth, power, arrogance, and this goes a long way to establishing the character of the master of the house, played by Frechette.

The plastic-domed turntable stereo with the LPs tucked beside it remind us it is the 1970s.

Mr. Frechette plays Andrew Wyke, the writer of mystery novels whose wife is leaving him for Milo Tindle, played by Malcolm Gets. He invites Gets to his home to discuss the situation man-to-man, and soon sets him up in a most creative, and most cruel, game to exact his revenge. Frechette is brilliant as the playful, funny, arrogant, and somewhat manic writer who uses his expertise at writing mystery stories to manipulate and bully Gets into humiliating, and occasionally terrifying, scenarios. Frechette is teasing, bubbly, childlike, scornful, and at times appearing a bit unhinged. That’s a lot of oranges to juggle.

Gets, a more sensitive but no less clever man, is at first overwhelmed by the forceful life-of-the party personality of Frechette, who makes him jump through emotional hoops, but in the second act Gets proceeds to ploddingly turn the tables. The final scene is shocking, and we see that the relentless drive to be the winner in this peculiar game of one-upmanship comes at great risk for both men.

It is a literate play, and frequently the dialogue erupts into long and complicated soliloquies, but this is managed very well by both actors. Both employ credible, and several, British accents in the course of the action as they role play. They are well matched, and deserve much credit for instilling a great deal of energy into what is essentially a very wordy play.

Good company on a warm summer night on Cape Cod.

For more on the rest of the season at The Cape Playhouse, have a look at this website.

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