by Anthony Horowitz
Directed by Ken Russell
Starring Keith Carradine
Soho Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

Good stage thrillers are really hard to come by, and seem to be impossible since Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth (though I'll allow leeway for anyone who wants to challenge me with Ira Levin's Deathtrap). Shaffer set the bar anew for what we now commonly think of as "the reversal," and right around that time, David S. Ward's screenplay for The Sting renovated the "fake out" in caper terms, and whether they know it consciously or not, writers of this genre have since been toiling in the shadow of these two templates. Some TV and film have gradually found ways to hold their own again, but stage thrillers have had a really rough go, because they keep trying variations on the Which Configuration is the "Real" Reality game; i.e. Who's really the madman (if anyone)? Who's really dead (if anyone)? Has there really been a crime committed, or is that yet to come? Characters tricking other characters. I can't tell you about Sleuth's variations without spoiling it (but the original film adaptation with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine [avoid, avoid, avoid the recent one with Michael Caine in the opposite role and Jude Law] is a pretty good rendering), but I can tell you the problem is that it's folly for a new stage thriller to try playing the same game—take, for example Mindgame by Anthony Horowitz at the Soho Theatre.

    We're in an exclusive hospital for the criminally insane. A bestselling true crime author (Lee Godart) wants to get the permission of the hospital's director and chief physician (Keith Carradine) to interview the institition's most notorious monster. As he tries to make his case, an unlikely nurse in a pink wig and other fetishist indicia (Kathleen McNenny) keeps making periodic appearances, and there seems to be no security staff of any effectiveness or meaningful competence. The problem here is, verisimilitude is in question from the start. So you start jumping ahead to possible paradigm shifts. And there aren't that many: Is the doctor perhaps the monster in disguise? Is the nurse perhaps the real doctor? And what's the truth about the reporter? In time, the play exhausts the possibilities in a fairly by-the-numbers order, and anyone with a decent feel for structure will see the end coming by intermission. And the end is really silly. When I think of what Sleuth (and come to think of it, The Sting) did differently that I can discuss, it suddenly occurs to me, it's the one plot point that ISN'T a spoiler:

    They both start out sincerely. With real characters wanting real things. We never doubt the foundation. The games that follow never violate the original characters' objectives. Reality doesn't shift, but we're temporarily misdirected into thinking it does. (It's precisely the stage equivalent of magic; the magician has to ground you before he can fool you. Which makes you trust him even though he's untrustworthy. Is this making sense?) Anyway, you never for a moment believe what you're told in Mindgame, so what may or may not be real is moot.

    And that said, the production, directed by of all people, Ken Russell, is a pretty cheesy one, and the cast are giving B-grade performances. (Even the esteemed Mr. Carradine. He understands how to honor the rhythms and tropes of his character with the "right" line readings, but like the play, he never convinces you that he's actually inhabiting them. But in that sense, he's just as much an unmoored victim of the play as we are. Because it isn't until the end that he gets to—briefly, briefly—play the truth…

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