A theater critic character is murdered in the first act of Ken Ludwig's comedy-mystery The Game's Afoot (or Holmes for the Holidays). Meanwhile, in an aisle seat at WaterTower Theatre, an actual critic wishes for the sweet release of sudden death.
The Game's Afoot, surely the worst play on any big local stage in 2013, taunts us with its allusion to Sherlock Holmes in its title. He's nowhere to be found in this turgid two-act turkey. Instead, there's a play-within-the-terrible-play featuring "William Gillette," the main character based on a real-life early-20th-century stage actor who toured as Arthur Conan Doyle's detective for more than 30 years.
In Ludwig's script, William (played by Greg Holt, a recent transplant from the Austin stage) is recovering from a gunshot wound sustained during one of his Sherlock Holmes performances. He is convinced he knows as much about solving drawing room murders as the sleuth he portrays, but he can't seem to crack the case of that dead critic (Sherry Hopkins), who has crashed a 1936 Christmas Eve party at William's posh Connecticut estate only to get a knife in her back. (Actually, at the performance reviewed, somebody backstage forgot the knife. Hopkins covered beautifully, pretending there was a blade stuck in her spine. It magically appeared after intermission.)
The Game's Afoot (or Holmes for the Holidays)
Continues through January 5 at WaterTower Theatre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison. Call 972-450-6232.
Houseguests, and therefore suspects in the homicide, include nervous younger actor Simon (Christian Genco); Simon's new wife, widowed millionaire ingenue Aggie (Kaycee Reininger); glam older acting couple Madge (Emily Scott Banks) and Felix (Randy Pearlman); and William's dotty old mother, Martha (Allyn Carrell). The butler has been given the night off and the cook is never seen. A dog name Portia barks offstage, until she's accidentally slipped a mickey. (Lucky dog.)
Ludwig, typist of produced-everywhere showbiz-spoofing claptrap Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo, doesn't have a clue how to construct a smart, engaging whodunit. The first-act stabbing in The Game's Afoot occurs nearly an hour into the play. An hour in which nothing else happens that might be mistaken for an interesting plot element. Nothing that plants an iota of suspense. Certainly nothing worth laughing at. Ludwig has Madge and Felix confusing "yoga" with "yogurt." That's supposed to be a huge joke. Then someone describes William's gadget-laden home as containing "an electric snow shovel and an exploding monkey."
An exploding monkey would've been awesome.
But no, Ludwig just shovels out two hours of plodding, lead-footed dialogue and keeps stumbling over his own dramatic logic. If William Gillette identifies so closely with Sherlock Holmes, why is the character's first instinct to hide the critic's body instead of solving the murder himself? He dons his deerstalker and throws on his Sherlock cape, but William behaves like a witless dolt. (Doesn't help that sallow-faced actor Holt lacks the charisma and vocal command to become believably Holmesian. See for reference: Cumberbatch, Benedict.)
The other actors in WaterTower's production sweat their faces off trying to make this ghastly affair amusing. Pearlman and Banks are crackerjack comic performers. But even they can't inject much mirth into jokes about Sacco and Vanzetti (a pair of anarchists who died in the electric chair in 1927) or an excruciating running gag about a telephone operator who needs simple words like "taxi" and "police" spelled out for her.
Farce should mean wacky, lighthearted fun, curtain up to curtain down. The Game's Afoot wears cement clodhoppers. Director Robin Armstrong, usually a reliable hand with light comedies (she's directed plenty at Circle Theatre and WaterTower), plants actors like lampposts and leaves them standing still around the set for long stretches. The one major bit of physical comedy she's choreographed has William and Felix dragging the dead woman's body around that drawing room, trying to find a place to stash her. But it never gets funny, just tiresome. And it's odd that the "corpse" keeps popping back up. Somebody call an ambulance! Unlike the play, there's still life in her!
This dead parrot of a production is also woefully short on glitz. Described as "where God would live," William Gillette's "mansion," designed on WaterTower's proscenium stage by Rodney Dobbs, instead looks like Medieval Times meets a Cracker Barrel restaurant. Weapons — guns, axes, swords — adorn orange-y plywood walls and a fake-rock fireplace. French doors are flimsy and glassless. The library door sticks. A tablecloth at the seance droops like an unwashed old bedsheet.
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Yes, there's a seance. But no exploding monkey.
Period 1930s costumes designed by Armstrong have hits and misses. Banks looks like a million bucks in a sparkly black velvet evening frock. Pearlman, with a Billy DeWolfe mustache, is sleek in his tux, with its shiny red weskit. But the ingenue's gown is a dusty dud. None of the men's shoes are shined.
Late in the second act, Miss Marple-like Detective Goring shows up to go over the evidence. She wears a tweed jacket, a dowdy brown trumpet skirt and a brown beret with a fuzzy pompon on it. Burdened by that dreary get-up, it's no wonder actress Krista Scott can't decide on an accent (she uses all of them).
Throughout The Game's Afoot, Ludwig has his thespian characters spouting lines from Shakespeare (the title's from Henry V). Big mistake to keep reminding us of the greatest plays in the English language while we're watching one of the lousiest.