There are some theatrical events - operas like Der Rosenkavalier, or La Boheme, or anything by Mozart, plays like Glass Menagerie or Noises Off, or almost anything by Shakespeare - that I could sit through a dozen times a year and still respond to with visceral, all-encompassing lover's joy, almost unaware of the nuts and bolts of the staging or the stagecraft. There are some which I would endure a second time only under duress. The vast majority of plays and operas, even those that are beautifully wrought, even those which captivated me the first time round, appeal to me on second or third viewing as much for their technique as for their artistry, as much for the opportunity to examine how the effects are created as for the chance to be dazzled.
The second installment of a Schaffer family double-header at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis offers an excellent opportunity for study, as Peter Schaffer's Amadeus is followed by twin brother Anthony's slyly ingenious mystery Sleuth. This play was first produced by the Rep not long after it won a Tony in the early 1980s, and has been released in two different movie versions (with Michael Caine in different roles). As earnest as the management is about pointing out that even those who have seen it before won't remember all of the intricate details, the fact is that second-timers are likely to remember enough to render the suspense a lot less suspenseful. Fortunately, this makes it easy to regard the production as a demonstration of the Rep's formidable prowess at technical theater, and as a fascinating chance to examine and appreciate the skill and artistry of the cast.
There was a bit of awkwardness with lines on opening night, but Munson Hicks as the aging mystery writer Andrew Wyke, and Michael Gabriel Goodfriend as Milo Tindle, the young man who threatens to upset Wyke's cart of highly-polished apples, showed the kind of rapport that one would expect only from much longer acquaintance. Almost all of the power of the play comes from the sudden twists and turns of the byzantine plot, and the credibility of these often grotesque events depends squarely on the ability of the cast to keep the level of intensity high. They have to be as surprised as we are, in short, for the whole thing to work. Furthermore, Mr. Goodfriend has to be quite gifted physically, as his weirdly slapstick pratfalls and slips down the stairs in the first act would otherwise be downright dangerous. It is fun - and enlightening - to watch both of these talented actors at work.
The set, by Paul Shortt, is spectacular. He mentions in his program notes that he was working under budget constraints, but it certainly doesn't look that way; from the wide curving freestanding stairway that rises from center stage, to the rich wood finish of the walls and millwork, this is an opulent set. The one unexplained oddity is the door in the upper level of a two-story paned window that opens onto thin air. The special effects work with military precision, as well. James Sale lights this luxurious affair with flair, offering some nicely dramatic effects. Gordon DeVinney's costumes are wonderfully subtle in the cases of the clothes worn by the principals, which make their positions in the British class system abundantly clear without being garish, and playfully inventive in the cases of others.
In short, if you haven't seen Sleuth before, prepare to be suitably - and delightfully – bamboozled; if you have, come anyway to watch a splendid cast and world-class designers at work. The show will run through November 8 on the Browning Mainstage at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis; for ticket information, call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.