Yes, she was up for "Sleuth," thanks to Morton Gottlieb
Posted by: Delvino 07:37 pm EDT 03/19/17
In reply to: Wasn't she in talks to do a gender reversal of "Sleuth"? - Delvino 08:27 am EDT 03/17/17

CAN a play that made one of the most successful sea changes in theater annals survive a sex change? At the Broadhollow Theater in Farmingdale through July 5, Patricia Dolce is staging Anthony Shaffer's ''Sleuth'' with two women, instead of two men, in the leads - a ''first'' for the British import that ran for three years on Broadway.

Ordinarily, one might merely be curious about what Miss Dolce and the two actresses, Jackie Bain and Evelyn Ebert, are up to. After all, how many contemporary plays have been subjected to switches of sex? Only Mary Tyler Moore's assumption of the male lead in ''Whose Life Is It Anyway?'' comes to mind. On the reverse side, an actor in the leading role of ''Hello, Dolly!'' and all-male versions of ''Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'' and the musical ''Company'' never ran past the stage of rumor.

When one remembers that Morton Gottlieb, the co-producer of ''Sleuth'' on Broadway, had the same notion as Miss Dolce, and that he had attempted to lure Joan Crawford into taking on one of the roles when the play was near the end of its Broadway run, mere curiosity becomes a cause for investigation.

''Sleuth,'' which was originally titled ''Anyone for Murder?,'' concerns an eccentric, upper-class detective novelist, Andrew, who engages a lower-class travel agent, Milo, as an accomplice in murder and fraud. (In the film version, with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, the travel agent was changed to a hairdresser.) The two play diabolical games, outwitting each other in swift byplay and sophisticated wordplay.

Mr. Gottlieb had tried to get Miss Crawford to play the writer, with Eileen Atkins considered for the accomplice-adversary. Mr. Gottlieb sees in the play ''fascinating and valid concepts for social change and comments.'' ''Women can be in greater control than men in today's world,'' he said. ''It is a play about power, and it would be interesting to see a power play between women, not in the Miriam Hopkins-Kay Francis sense, but in terms of position and prestige.''

The producer - whose Broadway hits also include ''Same Time, Next Year'' and ''Tribute,'' and who has had a summer place on Fire Island for 20 years - recalled recently that he and Miss Crawford had ''talked about it constantly.'' That was in 1973, four years before the actress died.

''I offered her four months of rehearsal time, little by little, but finally it intimidated her,'' he said. ''She hadn't been on stage in 48 years, and even then, she was in the third line of the chorus. She just didn't have the courage or the confidence to deal with it.''

When Miss Dolce, who lives in Kings Park, saw ''Sleuth'' at a dinner theater in Florida last year, she was startled by the complexity of the two leading roles, and wanted to produce it at the Broadhollow. ''But I didn't have two actors to do the parts at that time,'' she said.

Miss Dolce's husband suggested that the play could work with women. ''It sounds very sexist, I know,'' she said, ''but the bitchiness of these characters seem perfect for women, and we were surprised that it hadn't been done that way in the first place. Now, our best response is from people who don't understand how it ever could have been played by men.''

Since the plot specializes in surprise, details and nuances should not be divulged. It is sufficient to say that Miss Dolce, who collaborated on script changes with Miss Bain and Miss Ebert, did more than transpose pronouns, but less than might be expected.

''There was a minimum of rewriting,'' she said. ''We stayed true to the text, and we didn't stretch it in the least. We didn't do it just to be different. That would have been dreadful.''

In one scene, poison was substituted for strangulation. Clues were rearranged to suit the characters: one was changed from a woman's crystal necklace to a man's gold bracelet. A scene involving a fierce physical struggle, with lots of punching, was eliminated. ''I'm an English gentlewoman, and I would never do something like that!'' said Miss Ebert, who plays Andrea, formerly Andrew, the novelist.

A portion of the plot had involved the love of both men for the same woman, but ''this part works better with two women desperately, dependently in love with the same man,'' Miss Dolce said.

Miss Ebert, who lives in Plainview, and Miss Bain, who lives in Westbury, agree that the roles are a matter of interpretation, rather than concepts. ''The delivery tells it all,'' Miss Ebert said.

On the inevitable question of whether or how lesbianism figured in the new interpretation, Miss Dolce said: ''There was a conscious decision not to play it from a homosexual angle. When Andrea says to Marla, 'Would you come and live with me?' it is strictly on the level of two legal and consenting games players.''

The age factor was also adjusted so the rivalry between a younger and an older man became a contest of equals. ''Andrea is above all a games player,'' Miss Dolce said, ''and what she wants is asexual, intellectual stimulation, a person who is her match. The approach is beyond age and beyond sex.''

For the actresses, the incentive to play the parts was simply expressed by Miss Bain: ''You don't get roles like that for women!'' In the meantime, Mr. Gottlieb said he had been thinking of reviving ''Sleuth'' on Broadway - with two men. Then he added, ''But every once in a while, whenever I talk to Angela Lansbury ...''

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