While Adam Immerwahr’s intelligent, suspenseful production of “Sleuth” unveiled its cat-and-mouse tricks on the McCarter Theater’s Matthews stage, you would never know there was any story in the world, or in Princeton, besides Anthony Shaffer’s engrossing 1970 duel of gamesmanship between two canny players.
Actors Derek Smith and John Tufts were deftly going through their paces as they had on the three previous nights “Sleuth” was performed. Alexander Dodge’s intricate, interesting set was like an additional character. Ivania Stack’s costumes revealed giddy imagination as well as the taste and elegance of the characters. Darron L. West’s sound design and Nancy Schertler’s lighting enhanced the mood and the thrill of revelation.
The performance ran routinely, but this night, or early evening, was different from all other nights.
Rather than an audience of hundreds, “Sleuth” was playing to an invited group of about 70 people.
The overriding purpose of the performance was not to display Shaffer and Immerwahr’s excellent work to mystery-loving theatergoers. It was to record the production for McCarter’s archives.
The reason for the hastily arranged gathering is one that affects most American theaters, concert halls, and live entertainment venues today. Containing the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, forced “Sleuth” into a premature closing. Once this unscheduled 6 p.m. presentation ended, Dodge’s magnificent set would be struck, Stack’s witty outfits would be consigned to the rag heap, and Smith’s and Tuft’s craftily superb work would be part of the annals of theater history, never to be seen by another audience.
Theater is, by nature, ephemeral. All shows close. Even “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Lion King” will one day ring down their last curtain.
“Sleuth” was shuttered before it had its official chance to open. The show was scheduled to run at McCarter through March 29, but it lasted only to March 13. Videographer Richard Stucker’s recording is the lone testament McCarter’s “Sleuth” ever existed.
That, and the memory of a few dozen people and those lucky folks who attended the previews.
The people at McCarter for the recording were McCarter staff, trustees, and friends of the theater, including members of the press. They were seated in designated rows (E-N) toward the front of the house while Stucker’s camera was behind them, exactly centered in Row S. Before the recording McCarter resident producer Debbie Bisno spoke briefly to the assembled and asked that no one in the center section stand during the taping lest their torso and movements be imprinted on the video.
The atmosphere was festive, the prevailing attitude being this was a special, if sad and troubling, event. Talk alternated between the closing of Broadway and other theaters, including what that might mean economically in the short and long run, and the coronavirus crisis. People smiled as they made a show of literally rubbing elbows instead of shaking hands. Sanitation and personal precautions were another common topic.
When the lights went down, the audience stood en masse to applaud Smith and Tufts and added an ovation for Immerwahr. The actors applauded in return. During her introduction, Bisno asked artists connected with the production to stand, so they also received recognition. The occasion was lighthearted but emotional, showing, as often happens, Irving Berlin was right when he wrote the lyric, “There’s no people like show people.”
“Sleuth,” like so many other shows, was curtailed as part of a national effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus, which is contracted via contact between people. Theaters, in which audience members sit shoulder-to-shoulder in close proximity, are considered among public gathering places where rampant contagion could take place.
Last week New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy requested that all venues that can contain crowds of 250 or more close. As a public service, and realizing the public good, McCarter complied. The audience for “Sleuth” generally agreed that was the prudent move to make.
Everyone involved with “Sleuth” received full payment for their work.
For now, Stucker’s video is for archive purposes. Any future use, including “Sleuth” airing publicly, is subject to complicated contingencies that would have to be negotiated in advance.
McCarter is scheduled to be closed until Tuesday, March 31. This will affect any program that was booked for that period. An assessment of the coronavirus situation and reopening will be made then. McCarter Theater Company’s next production, “The Refuge Plays” by Nathan Alan Davis, is set for May 8 to June 7.
McCarter is not the only company that recorded a performance before an invited audience. New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse did the same for “Other World,” a world premiere production it will open once given the go-ahead.
The Philadelphia Orchestra recorded Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies. The concert, played to an empty house, was aired over the weekend on WRTI (90.1 FM) and will appear, in time, on Philadelphia’s PBS station, WHYY-TV.