A dark and stormy night. A mysterious castle. Hideaway bookcases. A wall laden with weapons. An egotistical host. A gaggle of snarky thespians. A dead theatre critic. Everything you need for the perfect holiday soiree.
Actually, Ken Ludwig – the playwright behind the staged-all-over Lend Me a Tenor and soon-to-be-seen-at-City Theatre Moon Over Buffalo – has assembled the elements of a crackerjack whodunit farce in this 2011 effort. Drawing on the life of William Gillette – whose stage play about Sherlock Holmes proved so popular, he toured it for more than 30 years – Ludwig has the actor host a Christmas party for his cast at the Connecticut castle that Gillette really designed and built with the fortune he made playing the great detective. These being thespians for whom all the world's a stage – they can't resist spouting Shakespeare, no matter where they are – there's plenty of ham being served, liberally sauced with backstage gossip and catty asides. But Ludwig also mixes in an attempt on Gillette's life and that venomous critic who everyone hates, and when she turns up dead – in the drawing room with a dagger – the affair goes all Clue-ish, with Gillette donning the deerstalker for real to catch the killer.
It's all in good fun. Seriously. This is the sort of bloodless mayhem that occurs only in country-manor murder mysteries, which Ludwig is mocking – going so far as to make one comic set-piece of the stabbing victim's inability to communicate to Gillette that a blade is stuck in her spine, and another of Gillette and an actor pal dragging the body from one hiding place to another to conceal it from a police inspector with more than a passing resemblance to Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, English accent and all.
However, for the play's regional premiere, Austin Playhouse isn't having nearly as much fun as it could. The setup encourages a production drenched in style: tony Broadway types in glamorous Thirties formal wear, a posh bash with Champagne flowing like the Connecticut River, a castle mansion so swank that every visitor is compelled to comment on it. But while the gowns from costume designer Diana Huckaby offer some period flair, the show overall is otherwise unfortunately short on glitz. The castle interior that one character describes as "where God would live – if He could afford it" lacks luxe – or even the polish seen in so many other Playhouse sets.
Artistic Director Don Toner has cast the show well, and his actors are, in a word, game, but they don't always take advantage of the heightened acting style that the Thirties setting affords, leaving these show folk a little less bright than they could be and the shtick a little less crisp. There's also surprisingly little tension in the characters' relationships, so the sense of motivation for murder and mutual suspicion doesn't go very deep. There's some capable work and pleasure to be found here, but even in a mystery played for laughs, the crime needs to be grounded in genuine emotion, or the question "Who done it?" becomes "Who cares?"
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