'Sleuth' stars find comfort in their trust
By Richard Duckett TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
Phil Killbourne and Chip Phillips in "Sleuth" (TRINA M. HOLUB)
Where: Worcester Foothills Theater Company, Commercial Street, Worcester.
When: Now through Nov. 20.
How much: $26.50 to $35, depending on performance. Box office, (508) 754-4018.
Phil Kilbourne and Chip Phillips have never acted together before, but it has been helpful to their roles in the Worcester Foothills Theatre Company production of 'Sleuth' that they've been getting along.
Kilbourne noted that a clue to a successful mystery-suspense is if the actors playing the lead protagonists like each other especially if they are portraying antagonists on stage.
'There's an animosity which you can't really get on the stage unless you like him,' Kilbourne said of swapping the barbs with an actor. The reason is, 'You have to be able to have trust. I think when I met Chip I said, 'Yeah, this is going to work out.' '
Phillips, the quieter one of the two, nodded his head.
In 'Sleuth' (now running at Foothills through Nov. 20), Kilbourne plays Andrew Wyke, a famous mystery writer who may well be past his prime as he sounds off with his jaundiced British prejudices. And yet Andrew has invited Milo Tindle (played by Chip Phillips) to his English country home where he now lives alone even though the guest is half-Italian and has been sleeping with his wife. Actually, it doesn't seem that Andrew minds (he has a mistress of his own). In fact, Andrew has a helpful suggestion for the impoverished Milo namely that he stage a burglary at the house and make off with some expensive jewels. Milo will be able to sell them at a good price, while Andrew, who could use some money himself, can cash in on the insurance policy.
But don't be fooled. A game is being played here one character against the other. And as the play unfolds it becomes an increasingly dangerous game of who is fooling whom. And yes, a police inspector will call.
'They're really chewy pieces,' Kilbourne said of the devious characters Shaffer created. 'All of the roles are chewy. It's very well written and it flies all over the place.'
Which should make for an absorbing time for the audience as supported by the evidence of the play's 35-year life span ('Sleuth' was also made into a delicious 1972 movie starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine.)
'You really can turn the tables on them (audience members),' Kilbourne said. 'But it's a fine line. You play the game with the audience as well as the character. The actor has to fool the audience, making sure they understand that they don't understand. It's a juggling act. If you overdo people will say, 'Oh that's just silly.' '
Still, in this case 'Sleuth' seemed to be playing out. Kilbourne and Phillips were being interviewed at Foothills the day after the first preview performance.
'The first preview went really well,' Kilbourne said. Then he tapped his hand against some nearby woodwork. 'The show can be a technical nightmare, but, knock on wood, the technical stuff worked out every well last night.'
A three-and-a-half star review was in the production's future which no doubt helped the rapport between Kilbourne and Phillips.
And yet, as was alluded to earlier, the two actors are quite different personalities. Kilbourne, 53, has a wry, dry sense of humor and gave the longer answers to most of the questions asked. In contrast, Phillips, 48, seemed quite shy (albeit, like Kilbourne, perfectly amiable). But if Kilbourne seemed slightly more at home during the interview, compared with Phillips, he's a relative stranger to Foothills. Kilbourne has been seen at Foothills before in the 2001 production of 'Don't Dress for Dinner.' However, that pales compared to Phillips, who has been in 12 previous Foothills shows.
His last one prior to 'Sleuth' was 'A Christmas Carol' in 2000.
Phillips is glad to be back.
'Worcester always seems to come along and save my bacon,' Phillips remarked. He recalled that earlier in his career he had moved to California for 'a miserable year-and-a-half' and then came back East after being cast in a Foothills show. 'It was nice to be with a community of actors and a supportive atmosphere. So it feels like coming home,' he said.
Home for Phillips had been Boston until he moved to New York City two years ago. His Foothills credits have included 'From Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill' and 'On Golden Pond.' In Boston he had an 18-month run in 'I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change.'
The change to New York has not been totally perfect.
'New York's tough,' Phillips acknowledged. 'If I work, I work out of town. It's hard. I barely see my wife these days.'
Nevertheless, the reason for moving to New York was to explore a 'bigger market, a wider net,' Phillips said. His wife, actress and stand-up comedienne Julie Perkins, has benefited from that and been busy. And living in New York can offer some unusual opportunities. On his day off from 'Sleuth' last week, Phillips had a gig as an extra watching the lithe dancers at the 'Bada Ding' club during the shooting of an episode of 'The Sopranos.'
Speaking of Soprano-land, Kilbourne is originally from New Jersey but lived in Boston several years as a student and actor. A re-connection with his 'high school sweetheart,' Marysue Moses, led to marriage and relocation to St. Paul, where his wife runs Theatre at Work, which offers theater-based training on social issues such as sexual harassment and violence in the work place.
Over the years Kilbourne said he has done a lot of theater work for director Jack Neary, who directs the Foothills production of 'Sleuth.'
'I've done a lot of murder mystery with Jack. I've killed people for Jack a lot. I'm his go-to guy for slaughter,' Kilbourne deadpanned.
He had also played Andrew in 'Sleuth' six years ago. Neary remembered and gave him a call. Kilbourne is heavily involved as an actor with Theatre at Work but the dates for 'Sleuth' worked out.
'I had done the show before. It was perfect.'
Neary had been talking to Phillips, and invited him to audition.
'It worked out well,' Phillips said.
So when they were asked how they felt about returning to Foothills and appearing in 'Sleuth,' there was no mystery about it.
'I love coming back to New England,' Kilbourne said. 'It seems in Minnesota there's the crass theater and highly experimental theater. And the good theater only a few theaters practice it. I like it that Foothills practices good theater and is a popular theater.'
Phillips nodded in agreement.
Tuesday, November 1, 2005
Strong showings by actors help witty SLEUTH to shine
By Paul Kolas TELEGRAM & GAZETTE REVIEWER
Written by Anthony Shaffer, directed by Jack Neary. Presented by Foothills Theatre Company, 100 Front St., Worcester. Performances on Thursdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 24. Tickets: $26.50-$32. Call (508) 754-4018 for reservations, or book online at www.foothillstheatre.com.
With Phil Kilbourne, Chip Phillips, Philip Farrar, Harold K. Newman and Roger Purnell.
WORCESTER'Sleuth' is a play fecund with sly wit and deadly motivation, engineered to showcase the elegantly creative perversity human nature is capable of, a psychological mind game that at its fundamentally British core stokes the clashing fires between upper and working class mores, as represented respectively by Andrew Wyke and Milo Tindle. Jack Neary, who has directed several Foothills Theatre Company productions, has guided Phil Kilbourne (Andrew) and Chip Phillips (Milo) skillfully through the deceitful thickets of Anthony Shaffer's work in Foothills' latest offering, which played to a disconcertingly sparse audience on Sunday.
'Sleuth' is a high wire act that requires resourceful and focused actors to pull it off with elan, attributes thankfully found in the fully engaging performances of Kilbourne and Phillips.
Any summation of 'Sleuth' must be truncated in the extreme due to the labyrinthine nature of its plot, but there are a few essential details that can be divulged without criminality. Andrew is a wealthy mystery novel writer who has invited his wife's lover (Milo) to his ornately rustic home to meet him and propose a plan to provide the financially struggling Milo with a means of supporting her in the luxurious lifestyle she's accustomed to. Yes, you read that correctly.
It seems that Andrew is all too willing to give his high-maintenance wife away. To wit: Milo will 'steal' Margarite's jewels, sell them to a fence Andrew knows in Amsterdam that will give Milo full value for them (90,000 pounds), Andrew then pocketing the insurance money. Milo, of course, is suspicious of all this, thinking that Andrew is really a vengeful husband plotting a frame-up.
As the first act comes to a close, with Milo attired in a clown's costume Andrew has supplied for the mock burglary, those who have never seen 'Sleuth,' either onstage or the 1972 film with Sir Laurence Oliver and Michael Caine, will be pondering what lies in store in the second act after a gunshot turns a brainy duel into a seemingly deadly affair.
There is at times an irritating air of contrivance about the way Shaffer sets up his adversaries, like pieces on a chessboard, but there are also shards of indignation ripping through the wonderfully literate patter. There is no doubt he sides with Milo on matters of class.
Milo symbolizes the upstart working man, half Jewish, half Italian, who has dared to insinuate himself into the upper strata of British society by taking Andrew's wife from him. Milo owns a travel agency but is financially adrift, and can certainly use the lure of Andrew's scheme to boost not only his bank account, but, far more importantly, to be worthy of supporting Margarite.
Phillips does what he must in the role of Milo: he plays him shrewdly on the intellectual defensive in the first act, allowing Andrew to have free-flowing discourse of all his brilliantly devious ideas.
It's passive-aggressive acting that evolves into inventive pathological calculation as the 'game' progresses. If all that sounds nebulous, it's meant to be.
After all, this is a mystery reliant on surprise.
But there is no mystery about Phillips' insightful performance, nor Kilbourne's extra dry martini portrayal of Andrew. Here's a man nauseatingly in love with himself, supremely insouciant to the feelings of anyone else. It's a pleasure to watch Kilbourne confidently toy with Phillips, flaunting his arrogance with acidly delivered retorts, often mocking the police or bragging about his sexual prowess with his mistress Taya.
As he says in one of the play's many great lines: 'sex is the game, marriage is the penalty.'
As the battle lines shift and Andrew is forced into frantic reappraisal of his master plan, Kilbourne does an excellent job of backpeddling with damage control cunning, like an aging boxer against the ropes who has underestimated his opponent and is forced to employ whatever means necessary to stay in the game and preserve his sense of honor.
Both actors keep the dialogue bouncing back and forth like a well-played tennis match.
Philip Farrar (Inspector Doppler), Harold K. Newman (Detective Sergeant Tarrant), and Roger Purnell (Police Constable Higgs) are little more than window dressing for the thespian acrobatics of the two lead roles, but one needs to see the show to know exactly what that means.
James Wolk's scenic design is well worth noting, a sprawling upstairs-downstairs melange of bookshelves, closets and a laughing, one-legged sailor.
Foothills' 'Sleuth' sparkles
By David Brooks Andrews / Daily News Correspondent
Sunday, November 6, 2005
Have you ever noticed that the anticipation of attending a murder-mystery inevitably exceeds the satisfaction that you're left with once the murderer has been exposed and the curtain has come down? You might say that it's a theatrical theorem.
We get so excited beforehand that we often forget that there will be an inevitable letdown, to some degree.
But Anthony Shaffer's "Sleuth" is one of the top-drawer thrillers precisely because the gap between our anticipation and the feeling we're left with afterward isn't as great as it often is. "Sleuth" has a psychological complexity that challenges us to think more than most who-dun-its. And it leaves us with something once the bubble has burst and all the secrets we've been trying to figure out are revealed.
Foothills Theatre Company is giving "Sleuth" a polished, taut production under the skillful direction of Jack Neary, who has appeared as an actor in Foothills productions and who's an accomplished playwright. His adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" has become a Foothills holiday staple.
You're better off if you have poor memory for theatrical plots, as I do, so that every time you see a production of "Sleuth" -- if there's enough time in between -- it feels like a new play. An excellent film version was released in 1972 with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine in the two leading roles. But don't see it before catching the Foothills production.
When the play opens, the British mystery writer Andrew Wyke has invited his wife's lover over for the evening. She's out of town.
"I understand you want to marry my wife," Andrew says, getting straight to the point, although in a civilized tone. "Yes, with your permission," responds the stunned Milo Tindle. The play is packed with such witty lines, some of which are so unexpected they'll take your breath away.
Andrew seems perfectly happy to have his wife taken off his hands. But he wants a guarantee that she won't be returning and is concerned that Milo doesn't have the resources to support her expensive habits. So he proposes an elaborate scheme by which Milo steals her jewels and sells them to an Amsterdam fence while Andrew claims the insurance.
Almost any thriller requires that we suspend our disbelief at some point in order for the story to leap to a level of complexity that will keep us confused and engaged at the same time. It's hard to believe that Milo, as the respectable owner of a travel agency, would fall for such a scheme. But Chip Phillips as Milo does a creditable job of resisting as long as he can, and Phil Kilbourne as Andrew is equally creditable at pushing the proposal.
Once Milo accepts, you're in for some big laughs as he dons a surprising costume at Andrew's insistence in order to carry off the crime. It quickly becomes apparent that this is an evening full of game playing, with extraordinary humiliation and cruelty as a means of exacting revenge.
When Andrew says that Milo must ransack the house to make it look like a burglary has taken place, Milo delights in ransacking it far more than Andrew had in mind, flinging the pages of his latest manuscript, "The Body on the Tennis Court," across the room.
It would be cruel to give away any more of the plot than this, but it can be said that underlying Andrew's hatred for Milo is an upper-class British snobbery that rebels against knowing that an Italian Jew has more passion for his wife than he himself is able to muster.
These are extremely demanding roles, both vocally and physically. Kilbourne is superb at maintaining Andrew's superiority while bouncing in and out of various vocal imitations. His Peter Falk is hilariously dead-on. At the press opening, Kilbourne stumbled over a few lines, which is understandable given all that he has to master, but no doubt he'll have everything down pat soon. He's at his best when the tables turn and he suddenly finds himself in desperate situations.
Chip Phillips brings a driving straightforwardness to Milo, and he, too, is good at conveying a sense of desperation. Philip Farrar is very funny as Inspector Doppler, giving him the feel of a continental Peter Falk, as he willingly accepts drinks on the job ("I can't afford to drink on my own time") and is methodically brilliant at sniffing out clues.
Harold K. Newman as Detective Sergeant Tarrant and Roger Purnell as Police Constable Higgs have the desired effect in spite of limited stage time.
Scenic designer James Wolk has created an elegant living room and upstairs landing of a wealthy British manor house. It gives just the right atmosphere to the play.
Foothills' production of "Sleuth" makes it perfectly clear why this has been one of the more successful thrillers for decades. After seeing it, you won't be surprised to learn that before the author of took up playwriting, he was a divorce lawyer. No doubt, he saw plenty of cruel games between bitter couples to draw upon.
"Sleuth" runs through Nov. 20 at Foothills Theatre, 100 Front St., Worcester. Tickets range from $26.50 to $32 and cost $18 for students. They can be purchased by calling 508-754-4018 or going online to www.foothillstheatre.com.
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'Sleuth' Snares Audience In Its Trap at Foothills Theatre
November 11, 2005 - by Nancy Grossman
"SLEUTH" Snares Audience In Its Trap at Foothills Theatre
Written by Anthony Shaffer
Director, Jack Neary
Scenic Designer, James Wolk
Lighting Designer, Jason Rainone
Sound Designer, Ed Thurber
Production Stage Manager, Steven R. Espach
Andrew Wyke, Phil Kilbourne
Milo Tindle, Chip Phillips
Inspector Doppler, Philip Farrar
From the moment of entering the auditorium at the Foothills Theatre, the playgoer has the feel of being in the English country manor of Andrew Wyke, the protagonist of Anthony Shaffer's British thriller "Sleuth." Scenic Designer James Wolk and Lighting Designer Jason Rainone have succeeded in creating a magnificent living room cum study, divided into two tiers where the action takes place. The lower tier contains Wyke's desk and typewriter (how quaint!), the glowing fireplace, a cocktail cart, shelves laden with books and games, a large red leather chair, and the life-size Jolly Jack Tar sailor dummy that laughs at Wyke's jokes. The central focus of the upper tier is a tall diamond-paned window. A grandfather clock and a wardrobe flank it. The room reflects its occupant's lifestyle with the casual placement of a fishing pole, skis, fencing mask, tennis racquet, and fish tank. Even the stirring, regal music playing over the entrance serves to set the scene and tone of this "veddy, veddy" upper crust home.
Andrew Wyke is a 57-year old English mystery writer with an air of arrogance about his writing and his place in society. He has invited 35-year old Milo Tindle to his home to confront the latter about his affair with Wyke's wife Marguerite and to make a somewhat indecent proposal. It seems that Wyke is more than willing to let Tindle have his wife, but wants to be assured that he will be able to "support her in the style to which she wasn't accustomed before she met me, but now is." He wants to avoid the possibility that she will return to him if Tindle disappoints her financially. With that in mind, Wyke lays out his plan for Tindle to rob the safe in the manor of some very expensive, very insured, jewelry, which he can then fence for 90,000 pounds. Tindle will have his small fortune, Wyke will collect on the insurance, and the divorce will go ahead as promised.
Phil Kilbourne plays Wyke with a mix of bored arrogance and childish glee as he sets up the game and tries to convince Chip Phillips as Milo to play along. As expected, the young antagonist is incredulous, then wary as he listens to the plot. He is eventually drawn in by Wyke and by his own greed. However, Phillips does not convey how he was convinced to take part in the scheme, seeming to give in because the script called for it without showing us his transformation. Still, once having joined the game, Milo is nearly as spirited as Wyke in the preparations for the burglary.
After a good deal of exposition to explain the background circumstances and the blueprint for the game, it is at this point that Shaffer and Director Neary pick up the pace of the play. The remainder of the first act and the second act move along with many twists and turns which the audience must follow closely lest they be fooled by a red herring.
Andrew is so convincing in establishing the cat and mouse game, despite Kilbourne's occasional stumble over his lines, that his sudden shift at the end of Act One comes as much of a surprise to us as to Tindle. Intermission is a necessary interruption, but one that can't end soon enough as we wait to see what happens next.
Whereas the tension is uneven in the first act, it is consistently palpable after the break. The arrival of Inspector Doppler of the local constabulary to question Wyke about Tindle's disappearance heightens both the confusion and the tension for Andrew and the audience. The Columbo-like Doppler (Philip Farrar) persists in his pursuit of the truth until he bests the mystery writer who regards him with disdain for being just a local yokel. The scenes in which Andrew gets his comeuppance are deliciously sweet when viewed as revenge for his contemptuous treatment of his seemingly lesser opponents, both Tindle and Doppler. He who was the hunter becomes the hunted and Kilbourne makes us believe that Andrew is in fear as he realizes just how clever is his competitor in this new game.
There is more excitement and drama as "Sleuth" takes its final twists and turns en route to a most satisfying denouement, but I don't want to give away the ending of this classic battle of wits. Foothills Theatre has mounted an admirable production of this 1971 Tony Award-winning Best Play which deserves an audience that doesn't know quite what to expect. If you are not able to get to Worcester, then read the play or rent the 1972 screen adaptation starring Michael Caine and Sir Laurence Olivier. Put on your thinking cap and polish your magnifying glass.
Wits, twists and time
The '70s parlor game called Sleuth opens at Foothills
By Chet Williamson
Programming mysteries in November is a tradition at Foothills. This year's choice for the month is the British war-horse Sleuth, which was a phenomenal success when it opened in 1970, having run for more than 4,000 performances in London and New York. In 1971, it won the Tony Award for Best Play. A year later it was made into the equally successful film of the same name, starring Michael Caine and Sir Laurence Olivier.
Thirty-five years later the classic still holds up. Written by the late playwright Anthony Shaffer, who also wrote such screenplays as Death on the Nile and Frenzy, Sleuth is a dense little chamber drama for all seasons.
The fiendish plot spins around Andrew Wyke, a detective storywriter of some merit and regard who invites a young business-type, Milo Tindle, to his estate for a drink. Wyke has a pressing matter to discuss with Tindle. It appears that the younger man is having an affair with the famous author's wife.
As much a psychodrama as it is a mystery, Sleuth deftly trots out a series of devices and themes that give the storyline its layered richness. In the opening scene of the first act, we already know that this is a play about jealously and deceit, arrogance and humiliation, class and subjugation.
Sleuth is also a story of power. Tindle wants to break into the British gentry. Wyke, who is only mildly threatened by the adulteress affair, really wants to put the young upstart in his place. To teach him a lesson, he hatches a sadistic plot, one that ultimately finds the tables turned.
Phil Kilbourne, who inhabits the part with just the right amount of scotch and cynicism, plays the role of Wyke. Kilborne was last seen at Foothills in 2001's Don't Dress for Dinner.
Chip Phillips, who has appeared in numerous Foothills productions over the years, is nearly letter-perfect as Tindle. He was last seen on the Worcester stage in A Christmas Carol.
Sleuth is essentially a two-person play. In order for it to work, both parts have to be cast with dynamic characters. With some reservations, Kilbourne and Phillips fill the bill. Wyke is a product of the British ruling class, a quasi-literate, righteous snob with suppressed homosexual tendencies. Kilbourne walks in the role comfortably with all the smarmy correctness of a smoking jacket.
The part of Tindle requires the actor to be young and virile. It was written for someone who is basically a swarthy Mediterranean beefcake. This is not Phillips. It is a credit to his acting ability that he pulls it off. His excellent performance proves he was not miscast.
In the tradition of classic British theatre, Sleuth is narrative-driven. The actors recite lines a mile long. They also have to move in and out of character. Kilbourne and Phillips deliver a variety of accents and dialects with crisp diction that gives the performance clarity.
Jack Neary, the director of choice these days at Foothills, directed Sleuth.
Sleuth is a play that teeters between the shifting powers. In the opening act, Tindle is a tragic and vulnerable sucker too na•ve to know he was dealing with a madman. In the second, he suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome and is fierce in his focus and intent. In the opening act, Wyke is maniacally self-assured and sinister. When the tables turn in the absurd parlor game, he should be the picture of remorse, a broken lunatic repulsed by his own madness. He's not. This unevenness is one of few faults in an otherwise thrilling performance. A tip-of-the-hat goes to scenic designer James Wolk for a set that had the look of being suitably lived in.
Sleuth opened on the weekend of Halloween. It was attended by half-a-house on a Saturday night. It is highly recommended.
Chet Williamson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org