Sleuth (starring Michael Hanrahan (left) and Tyrone Savage plays at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre until Aug. 4.
Ed Ellis / Postmedia
One of the first questions raised by Sleuth, currently on stage at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre, is this: can a clever work that’s defined by its sexist and classist framework deliver good entertainment in 2019?The day after watching the performance, directed by Canadian director Marti Maraden, I am still not sure.Many people will be familiar with Sleuth’s early iterations. The mystery/thriller was crafted in 1970 by Anthony Shaffer, and won a Tony on Broadway for best new play. In 1972, it was made into a critically acclaimed movie starring Laurence Oliver and Michael Caine, and in 2007, director Kenneth Branagh took a questionable crack at it.Set in a posh English manor house (impressively designed by John Dinning), Sleuth opens as successful author Andrew Wyke (Michael Hanrahan) bangs out the last few sentences of his latest detective novel. All bluster and corduroys, Wyke reads his words back to himself, preening at his own sharp wit. But then the doorbell rings, and he readies himself for battle. His rival, Milo Tindle, has arrived and a dangerous game is about to begin.The two men are set to spar over a woman by the name of Marguerite, who is, in fact, still married to the pushing-60 and slightly gone-to-seed Wyke even as she carries on an affair with Tindle, a trim and handsome man in his mid-30s.“I understand you want to marry my wife,” says Wyke, suavely swirling the ice cubes in his scotch.It’s a line meant to startle and confuse the audience, at least back in 1970, when such a paradox was perhaps more shocking. But it also sets up the central conceit of the play — that a woman belongs to a man and has no say in her own future. Later, we see that men will go to great lengths to preserve their property, and their manhood.Leaving aside the question of why Tindle would ever have agreed in the first place to come to Wyke’s home for a prickly conversation about who gets the girl, the audience settles in to watch as the two men negotiate the terms of the wife exchange.Wyke claims he is delighted to be rid of Marguerite, and is only concerned for Tindle’s well-being. It appears the wench is a spend-thrift and while Wyke is wealthy, he is concerned that Tindle is not. Wyke presents Tindle with a plan that sees him steal a box of jewels from Wyke’s safe, and then fence the jewels through a friend of Wyke’s, thereby gaining a vast sum to support the beguiling Marguerite. Wyke gets the insurance money and will never have to fear Marguerite crawling home because her new lover can’t support her shoe habit.This is all that can be said about the plot of Sleuth, which plays at the Mayfield until Aug. 4. (For ticket information, call 780-483-4051.) The narrative turns and turns and turns again, and giving away the details will only spoil the fun. (Although it’s like refusing to reveal how Gone with the Wind ends. Is there anyone over the age of 40 who doesn’t know that Rhett and Scarlett don’t make it?) Let me say, however, that Sleuth is smart — especially if you aren’t familiar with it.The real question that faces the audience at the Mayfield is whether it’s possible to buy the sexist premise (Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew is a festival of misogyny, but still gets produced) and enjoy the story as a period piece. Adding to that challenge is the battle over age and class in this work, increasingly irrelevant today.The character of Wyke is written as a top-notch gamesman who holds all the cards. But when Tindle comes in the room, it’s hard to detect the power imbalance. As Wyke draws Tindle ever tighter into a plan that starts to feel risky for the younger man, the audience should feel the menace of the silverback set to bite. But we don’t.Is that because Hanrahan only plays one note, at least in the first act, which is pompous, but not powerful? Does Tyrone inject his character with too much force? Is there something about the older theatre audience (many of whom are actually jealous of millennials) that can’t accept the older man is even in the game? What do millennials care about jewels anyway?This lack of tension is either because the chemistry between the two actors is out of whack, or the concept of the story is so far beyond its best-before date that it’s simply un-engaging. I don’t know which one it is. But the audience at the Mayfield was entirely unresponsive. There was hardly a murmur of appreciation for the clever quips and no startled gasp at the play’s shocking firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow me on Twitter @eatmywordsblog.