Actor Robert Mandan is on his way to putting a lock on the role of Andrew Wyke in Anthony Shaffer's unique thriller "Sleuth." At least in Southern California.
Mandan opens in his third production of the play tonight in Fullerton and will be repeating the performance this fall in Lancaster, at Pepperdine University, in Palos Verdes and in Palm Springs.
"And then," says Mandan, "there's a production down near San Diego." Speaking of his previous outings in the part, he laughs and adds, "I thought that would be the end of it; then this production came up. It may never end. I think I have an annuity."
In this Fullerton Civic Light Opera outdoor staging for the Muckenthaler Cultural Center's Theatre on the Green series, Mandan is appearing as the cuckolded Wyke opposite Randy Gianetti as the encroaching lover Milo Timdle. The play is not so much a whodunit as it is a which-one- will- do-it.
Shaffer has created what may be the ultimate theatrical puzzle in "Sleuth," as the two men swirl around each other in a zany, comic dance of death. They are roles an actor can sink his teeth into.
All of the runs of the play Mandan has been in and is scheduled for are fairly short, but put together they might approach his four-year run as Chester Tate in television's "Soap" or his 15-month stint as the producer in the Broadway production of "Applause" with Lauren Bacall in 1970.
Mandan isn't, however, worried about that actor's bane: getting stale.
"It's not a matter of keeping it fresh," he said. "It's a matter of keeping it vital. Shows don't usually get stale for an actor until after six months."
Part of the joy of "Sleuth" is the continuous piling up of surprises for the characters, and the audience, as the action flies past. Keeping the sense of surprise vital isn't a problem for Mandan either.
"If you've been really well-trained as an actor, familiarity allows you to be even more surprised, because you can stay in the moment, and you're not having to think ahead about what's coming next," he said. "It's part of an actor's training to be able to play something as though it's happening for the first time."
His longest run was in "Applause."
"Then you really have to look for things to make it fresh. But you have to be careful. You can bring new things to the role, and then you distort the role beyond recognition and beyond its purpose in the play. You can get pretty burned out by that time, and you need to get away and take a fresh look at things--a new start."
It will be a while before Andrew Wyke will require freshening up for Mandan. The play's frantic pace doesn't leave time for burnout. And this time he's playing against a new actor--Gianetti--and working with a new director, James Luisi.
Luisi, who is familiar to television viewers as Lt. Chapman in TV's "The Rockford Files," is directing "Sleuth" for the first time.
"It's a great challenge," Luisi said, "to keep it moving and keep it interesting, and keep the audience in their seats."
Luisi said it's no problem making it all seem like new. Besides the new co-star, new director and new set, he said, "There's always a new twist coming up in the staging. This production will have a completely different shape."
As an actor, Luisi said, he sees things differently from some directors, because he wants to be up there himself.
Another advantage for Luisi as "Sleuth" director is that he has a Lt. Chapman, detective-type mind.
"I love detective novels. I love to solve things," he said. "That's why this is a challenge, to come up with things I've read or seen and incorporate them into this production. Yeah, I'm having fun."
* Fullerton Civic Light Opera's production of "Sleuth" opens today at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton. Performances continue through July 30 on Tuesdays (show only) and Wednesdays through Sundays (includes catered dinner at 7 p.m.). Curtain: 8:15 p.m. $21 to $31. (714) 879-1732.