Daniel Gerroll and Matthew Floyd Miller star in the Ensemble Theatre Company production of “Sleuth,” directed by Jenny Sullivan and now playing at the New Vic Theatre in Santa Barbara. | Credit: Zach Mendez

Sleuth, by Anthony Shaffer, takes place in a lavish manor in the English countryside, the home of Andrew Wyke (Daniel Gerroll), a writer of detective “whodunnit” novels. Wyke is an aficionado at game-playing with a deep devotion to the world of fictional crime solving — specifically the style that features a brilliant sleuth unraveling a crime through the examination of elaborate minutia. Wyke meets his match when he invites Milo Tindle (Matthew Floyd Miller) to his home for a high-stakes psychological game that begins, ostensibly, with a conflict over Andrew’s wife (and Milo’s lover), Marguerite. The “game” devolves into a battle of egos with each man bent on destroying the other.

Ensemble Theatre Company’s production of Sleuth has many positive aspects. On opening night, the two main players, despite some inaudibility and mushy diction early on, settled into their roles nicely. Gerroll and Miller offer the audience comedic moments of a ludicrous nature, as well as chilling flashes of sociopathy that deliver both men to their ultimate destiny. The set, designed by Fred Kinney, is an artwork in itself, with exquisite detail and multiple levels of playing space both vertically and depth-wise. Direction by Jenny Sullivan utilizes the entire set, and the eye is never lacking in layers of visual interest. Every piece of furniture on stage is employed in the play’s action, leaving nothing as superfluous.

Overall, there are certainly unanswered questions in the script that necessitate suspension of disbelief, and the audience must commit to watching two men’s relentless narcissism. The tone leans comedic, though there are certainly oscillations toward a more intense mood. Sleuth opts for a dual-villain energy rather than a hero-villain dynamic; the best moments have a dark, ruthless humor and the lukewarm moments are those in which the audience focuses on the charming obnoxiousness of the characters over the emphasis on the game of wits.

Ultimately, Sleuth is a frivolous thriller that is devised in a stylish manner. The production offers clever dialogue and enough twists and turns to keep the audience entertained (if not invested) to the last, unexpected moments. 

Ensemble Theatre Company’s production of Sleuth runs through June 26. See etcsb.org/production/sleuth for tickets, and more information.

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