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‘Sleuth’ Is Murder Most Entertaining

Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth, now being given a crackling production at Northern Stage in White River Junction, is one of those tightly wound, well-oiled theatrical machines that needs only the lightest of touches to run perfectly. It’s an ingeniously constructed entertainment that has a lot of fun both upholding the conventions of the English murder mystery, and subverting them. The reversals and guessing games begin immediately.

The upper-crust mystery writer Andrew Wyke, who lives in one of those stately English manses beloved of mystery writers, invites a younger man, Milo Tindle, to dinner. Milo has fallen in love with Wyke’s wife Margaret and Wyke, it seems, is not only not offended, but eager to see Milo take his wife off his hands.

Margaret Wyke, who’s never seen or heard on stage, has expensive tastes, expensive habits and Wyke is tired of keeping her in the style to which she’s become accustomed. So Wyke has a proposition for Tindle: Tindle has Wyke’s blessing to run off with Margaret but he’ll also have to shoulder the burden of paying for her, which is where Margaret’s jewelry collection comes into the picture. Wyke has a scam in mind that will benefit both men, and what he wants to ask Tindle is — Is he in?

Played with nimble, expansive wit by William Thomas Evans, who was a rather dotty Emperor in Northern Stage’s production of Amadeus last season, Wyke is one of those men so in love with the sound of his own voice that he barely registers the existence of others. And behind his outward bonhomie, he’s a rather cold, calculating man.

Evans is very deft at showing us both sides of Wyke: the genial, generous host and the preening author who can’t bear not to have the last word. And although Sleuth is best known for its very British verbal brilliance, it doesn’t stint on physical action either, which Evans pulls off with high, comic style.

Patrick Woodall, who was seen last year at Northern Stage in Romeo and Juliet and, memorably as a young apprentice to the painter Mark Rothko in John Logan’s play Red, continues to do strong work here as Milo Tindle. He’s been very different in each role, which may sound like a painfully obvious thing to say; aren’t actors supposed to do that? In fact, not all actors can disappear into roles and seem like completely different people from play to play, but Woodall can.

As Milo, he’s at first suitably wary of Wyke’s come-on. By contrast with the effusive writer, Milo is self-contained, perhaps not at Wyke’s intellectual level and certainly not at his level of wealth or achievement. As with any mystery, though, things aren’t always as they seem, and the fun of watching Sleuth is seeing how the balance of power seesaws from one character to the other.

Director Oscar Blustin, who did a fine job last year with Romeo and Juliet, keeps the show purring along. He’s also skilled at imbuing Shaffer’s high-wire language with the danger it should have. It reminds me of a scene in a movie where a sports car drives at high speed along the switchbacks of a narrow mountain road: it’s simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. Words can be weapons and in the right, or wrong, hands, as Sleuth demonstrates, they can also be lethal.

“Sleuth” continues at Northern Stage in White River Junction through Nov. 18. For tickets and information, contact the box office at 802-296-7000 or go towww.northernstage.org.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.