Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

"Sleuth": Enjoy. But don't talk about it

Cleveland Press April 30, 1971

NEW YORK: "Sleuth" is a humdinger, a perfect melodrama, a suspense play that keeps you guessing right up to the end.

There is a dearth of good mystery plays, and to have one at all is cause for cheering, but to have one as good as this is beyond belief.

"For the enjoyment of future audiences it would be greatly appreciated if you would not disclose the plot of this play," is the way a warning in the program reads.

THAT'S ABSOLUTELY right. The fun of "Sleuth" is its surprises. No rat's maze ever had so many twists and turns. Playwright Anthony Shaffer (twin brother to Peter Shaffer of "Royal Hunt of the Sun" and "Black Comedy") has done a magnificent job.

He not only dreams up more cunning tricks than you will find in several mystery novels, he also decks them out with dialog that is alternately witty and biting, and always bright. This is stuff by a literary man, a man who uses words instead of grunts and groans.

The work is wonderfully, superbly, breathtakingly performed by the two principal actors -- Anthony Quayle and Keith Baxter. These are the men who created the roles in the original London staging and what a joy it is to see actors who are up there working every minute. They never shortchange their audiences.

Now, the problem. How much can be said without giving too much away?

Quayle plays a successful mystery story writer. Baxter is his wife's young lover. Quayle has invited Baxter to his fine country house -- all wood and stone and leaded window -- to discuss certain matters.

"I understand that you want to marry my wife," says Quayle.

"Yes," says Baxter.

Quayle seems rather agreeable. After all, he has a mistress "as does every right thinking, insecure, deceitful man." He makes a few remarks about his wife.

"You are disparaging my lover," says Baxter bridling.

"On the contrary, I was reminiscing about my wife," Quayle replies with equanimity.

Quayle foresees a problem -- "can you afford to support my wife in the style to which she was not accustomed before she married me?"

He has a plan that will profit both men and no, I have not given away the plot. This much is only the first few minutes of the play.

What follows involves burglary, murder, attempted murder, investigations, battles of wits and a bagful of surprises. Or is it really burglary and murder? It's a fine puzzle and even the program of the play is designed to add to the mystery.

This is one of the finest melodramas ever written, but for those who want more for their money, Shaffer delivers. There are comments about the detective story form itself, about class structure in England, about prejudices, about pretense.

But that is all underneath. Up top is perfect suspense, the kind we've been waiting for but so seldom get.