By Kay Kipling
Lovers of Sherlock Holmes (and I count myself as one) can never get enough of the superlative sleuth, even in versions that have little to do with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original. We’re just mad about him.
Holmes isn’t really a character in Ken Ludwig’s comedy-murder mystery, The Game’s Afoot, which just joined Asolo Rep’s mainstage season. But William Gillette, his earliest stage interpreter (who made quite a career out of playing the pipe-smoking detective in the theater), is, and the first scene of the play depicts him in that role—onstage taking a curtain call when a shot rings out that grazes him in the arm.
In Ludwig’s script, that’s the launching point for a Christmastime visit to Gillette’s Connecticut castle (he really did build one, although it may not exactly resemble the fanciful one rendered here by set designer Judy Gailen), where Gillette (smoothly played by Bryan Torfeh) has brought together a cozy group of suspects for the purpose of solving the crime himself, a la Holmes. The list consists of a long-married theatrical couple (Eric Hissom and Elizabeth King-Hall), a newly married ingénue (Brittany Proia) and her seemingly besotted second husband, played by Joseph McGranaghan (her first died mysteriously, natch), and the poison pen columnist/critic everyone loves to hate (Gail Rastorfer).
They all have secrets; heck, even Gillette’s apparently doddering mother (Peggy Roeder) has secrets. But who’s the shooter, and will there be other victims? You bet there will.
Ludwig has employed just about all of those one-set mystery story conventions so familiar to us: a dark and stormy night (albeit one with some holiday snow falling as well), creaky doors and secret rooms, weapons hanging conveniently on the wall, power outages, a dotty police inspector (Carolyn Michel) and even a séance led by the witchy columnist. He does it with affection, and the cast here, under the direction of Greg Leaming, seems at home playing those over-the-top theater types that are also familiar to us from countless backstage comedies.
So there are laughs to be had, especially with repeated bits involving scrambled phone calls and corpses that just won’t stay dead. (Rastorfer in particular has a field day trying to get Gillette to notice the knife in her back in one scene, staggering about and trying to speak through his constant interruptions.) At its best, The Game’s Afoot has the audience on its side.
But there are some slow stretches as well, with perhaps necessary but ponderous explanations of deductions made (although that, of course, too, is a convention of the genre). While it’s polished brightly with eye-catching visual trappings and sparkling comedic performances, The Game’s Afoot may sound better in concept than in its staged reality.
The Game’s Afoot continues in rotating rep through May 12; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.