The Game's Afoot

This whodunit is all in fun, but Austin Playhouse isn't having as much fun with it as it could

Everybody knows a murder and some mistletoe help to make the season bright: Molly Karrasch, Jason Newman, and Joey Banks.
Everybody knows a murder and some mistletoe help to make the season bright: Molly Karrasch, Jason Newman, and Joey Banks. (Courtesy of Christopher Loveless)

The Game's Afoot

Austin Playhouse at Highland Mall, 6001 Airport, 476-0084
www.austinplayhouse.com
Through Jan. 13
Running time: 2 hr.

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?"

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Austin theatre
Valoneecia Tolbert Geeks Out in <i>Tales of a Blerd Ballerina</i>
Valoneecia Tolbert Geeks Out in Tales of a Blerd Ballerina
The actress looks back at what it was to be young, geeky, and Black

Robert Faires, April 9, 2021

Examining the Sins and Virtues of Hypermasculine Theatre
Examining the Sins and Virtues of Hypermasculine Theatre
When is violence in theatre too much?

Shanon Weaver, Dec. 9, 2016

More Arts Reviews
<i>The Hunting Wives</i> by May Cobb
The Hunting Wives
When the Austin author leads you into the Piney Woods for her new thriller, the trip is sultry and surprising

Rosalind Faires, May 14, 2021

Carrie Fountain's Third Collection of Poetry Illuminates the Day-to-Day
Carrie Fountain's Third Collection of Poetry Illuminates the Day-to-Day
The Austin author lives The Life

Rosalind Faires, May 7, 2021

More by Robert Faires
Tony Hinchcliffe's Stand-up Racism
Tony Hinchcliffe's Stand-up Racism
Kill Tony host spews slurs at fellow comic Peng Dang

May 13, 2021

Austin Opera Races Back Into Live Performance With <i>Tosca</i> at Circuit of the Americas
Austin Opera Races Back Into Live Performance With Tosca at Circuit of the Americas
The company brings grand opera to the Grand Prix with an outdoor staging of Puccini's powerhouse

April 30, 2021

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

The Game's Afoot, Austin theatre, Austin Playhouse, Ken Ludwig, Don Toner, Diana Huckaby

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle