The real mystery of Sleuth isn't whodunit; it's why did this ever get done in the first place? This terminally quaint Curtis Theater take on a laborious, convoluted thriller seems as if it's supposed to be a backhanded stab at the old drawing-room detective story, but instead becomes what it hopes to lampoon: an energetic but stupid take on schlocky Sherlockiana. And when it's not stupid, it's implausible (but when it's not implausible, at least people are shooting at one another). Maybe a little more hack-and-slash on the dated script would have livened things up a bit, but right now, it's just a good-looking corpse.
We could start by blaming the subject matter. Poncey detective fiction seems like an odd subject to gnash your teeth at: like crossword puzzles and mahjong, it's less art form than mental calisthenics for a rapidly atrophying brain (really, how many times can the butler do it?). Thank God America had Raymond Chandler to implant guts in the genre; without him, domestic detectiving might have ended up as limp and impotent as all those private dicks across the pond.
Ostensibly, Sleuth reassembles those fusty detective conceits into a tale about fact and fiction and game playing or something; you'd think that with fare like Love Cruise and the Amazing Race bringing schadenfreude back into style, the time is ripe for an oblique examination of our desire for deviant diversions. But director Lewis Wilkenfeld isn't into it ("It's truly impossible to set Sleuth in the year 2001," he says in the program notes), and instead of the Most Dangerous Game, we get a rousing round of Clue on a tummy full of cat tranquilizers.
We're honor-bound not to disclose the details of the story, lest we cheat future waves of dim theatergoers out of some small deductive pleasure (once they've solved the riddles of Sleuth, perhaps they could turn to more pressing senior-set mysteries, like the Case of the Flashing 12:00 on the VCR). Suffice it to say that like all great British drama, Sleuth hinges on repressed homosexuality, fat people being humiliated and guys in stupid outfits falling on their asses (Benny Hill, we hardly knew ye). And while the script itself is sometimes about as taut as Agatha Christie's droopy jowls, the production values can't be beat: besides the hella antique-y set design (I'm decorating a new apartment, so I pay attention to such things as mortises and flying balustrades), stars Patrick Emerson and David Richards are real-life TV-type actors, so they're used to doing stock characters proud (Richards in particular draws his salary by playing surly; you've known and loathed him in Seinfeld, Party of Five, Star Trek and The Young and the Restless). It might be an unwieldy sort of magnetism, but it keeps the material alive and (with the help of those gunshots) the audience awake.
Sleuth has its moments. Richards (novelist Andrew Wyke) is as blustery as you've seen on the sitcoms, and Emerson (travel agent Milo Tindle) hits a comfortable stride somewhere in the middle. But still, there's stuff in this play that's just gonna kill you: the plot twists that creak so loudly you can hear them maneuvering into position in the first act, the shaky emotional Ping-Pong between Wyke and Tindle, the incessant British braying, even the clown suits. It's too uneven a production to really grab you by the throat—if it's funny when it's going for suspenseful, it could at least be suspenseful when it's trying to be funny. Perversely, it's a detective thriller that demands an unthinking audience: probe Sleuth too closely, and you'll end up the real victim.
Sleuth at the Curtis Theater, Brea Civic and Cultural Center, 1 Civic Center Circle, Brea, (714) 990-7722; www.curtistheatre. org. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Oct. 21. $17; seniors, $15; children, $10.