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In 2012, a send-up of the mystery genre by famed comic playwright Ken Ludwig, “The Game’s Afoot, or Holmes for the Holidays” won the Edgar from the Mystery Writer’s of America for Best Play. Ludwig, best known for delightfully ridiculous farces like “Lend Me a Tenor,” took that same approach to the classic whodunit, peppering it with references to Sherlock Holmes and his creator, and to Shakespeare. The resulting mashup is now on display at Whittier Community Theater, as the closeout to their 94th season, and it’s a hoot.
Based, in some measure, on the historic figure William Gillette, a famed American actor who became synonymous with Sherlock Holmes around the turn of the last century, the play is set in his castle-like estate in Connecticut. It’s a dark and stormy night, of course, and Christmas Eve. Members of his “Sherlock Holmes” company have come to join him for the holiday, as he recovers from having been shot at the end of a production his iconic play, by a still unknown someone in the audience. Then a most unpleasant theater critic/columnist arrives, sparking ire, unwrapping secrets and generally turning the house on its ear. What will happen next?
Norman Dostal makes a jovial Gillette, relaxed and carefree until the various disasters strike. Kathryn Hunter has fun as Gillette’s fussy and overprotective mother, while Justin Patrick Murphy vibrates with a kind of macho frailty as his fellow actor and best friend. Kensington Hallowell offers a somewhat brittle but practical rendition of this friend’s actress wife. Jay Miramontes and Amanda Joyce round out the house party as the young, recently wedded members of the troupe who carry secrets of their own.
Kerri Malmgren seems to be having the most fun of anyone in the company as the snotty and totally obnoxious columnist, whose mishap sparks much of the action and all of the best comedic moments. Candy Beck becomes the unexpected and rather distractible female detective who descends upon them all as the plot unfolds. All these characters not only deal with a genuine mystery, which has layers itself, but in the farcical silliness which ensues when there is a need to hide a body.
Indeed, under the direction of Suzanne Frederickson, the mystery – though interesting – takes a back seat to those farcical elements, as the piece is often very funny. The pacing is good and the director’s own elaborate stage design offers all the right bits to heighten the humor and move the story along. Costumer Nancy Tyler’s dependence on rather generic formalwear may not be exactly period (the piece is set in 1936) but isn’t exactly out of period either. In short, the whole thing works pretty well, right down to the startling, and very funny surprise ending.
Also possibly interesting to a theatrical historian, the production makes use of elements the real Gillette introduced into the American theatrical landscape: a realistic, fully working set, and sound and lighting effects (in this case, lightning and thunder) to contribute to the sense of drama. Gillette, a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, who actually retired from acting in 1932, was considered the first realistic American stage actor. This creates a bit of extra humor for those in the know, as farce as a genre is never very high on realism, nor can its characters be.
So, go take a look. “The Game’s Afoot” is a lighthearted romp, with a couple of interesting plot twists and a lot of humor. It will make a good, and economical way to entertain oneself on a warm summer night.
What: “The Game’s Afoot” When: Through June 18, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 S. Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org