Austin Playhouse's Holmes and Watson
The joy in this staging of Jeffrey Hatcher's play is seeing the good doctor deduce which of three Sherlocks is the real deal
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Sept. 13, 2019
There's no killing Sherlock Holmes.
A multitude of miscreants and malefactors have tried – by rifle, revolver, butcher's cleaver, hellhound, et al. – with no success. Even Holmes' creator failed in the attempt. In 1893, after two novels and two dozen short stories left him weary of the deductive genius, Arthur Conan Doyle resolved to rid himself of Holmes and in "The Final Problem" threw him off a cliff. The sleuth tumbled into Switzerland's Reichenbach Falls, locked in mortal combat with his newly created archenemy: Professor Moriarty, the "Napoleon of crime." But the public hue and cry over Sherlock's death was so intense that eight years later, Doyle undid it, penning a tale in which Holmes miraculously reappeared, alive, and resumed his crime-solving career.
Jeffrey Hatcher uses the character's death and resurrection as the jumping-off point for his original drama Holmes and Watson. In it, the demise of the detective has sparked a firestorm of hysteria, with scores of people claiming to be Holmes and his companion/chronicler having to investigate them and assure authorities they're not. The play follows Dr. Watson to a remote asylum in Scotland to check out a trio of such claimants, and it might be more aptly titled Watson and Holmes, for while the good doctor is outnumbered three to one by Sherlocks, he's the one in the spotlight, sifting through clues, interrogating suspects, and concocting plans to find a solution to the mystery.
And make no mistake, there is a mystery within this tale. Unlike the 2018 Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly film of the same name or some treatments of Holmes and Watson seen on area stages in recent years, this is no spoof. Hatcher, whose affection for Conan Doyle's tales goes back 50 years and who has written the characters in two other plays and a film, wants to do right by them. So Holmes is brilliant and crafty, with a superior air (in all of his incarnations here); Watson is forthright, loyal, and courageous; and they're drawn into an adventure built around a puzzle, which must be solved by keen observation and deductive reasoning. Obviously, this puzzle involves the three Sherlocks, but it also concerns what actually happened at Reichenbach Falls, what other sinister plots Moriarty had in place before that fateful encounter, and who else might be involved. Hatcher parcels out clues much like Conan Doyle, and his are often as difficult to catch and decipher as those in the canon. But he provides a thrill in the chase – that Sherlockian spirit of "The game's afoot!" – so even if you aren't racing Watson to the solution, his pursuit is excitement enough.
In Austin Playhouse's production, much of the fun is in the gravity. As our Watson, David Stahl takes every aspect of the case as seriously as testimony in a murder trial. Never mind that the three Sherlocks here bear no physical resemblance to one another or that there's no good reason for his Watson not to be able to recognize his friend of 10 years at a glance. Stahl takes no notice; he locks himself inside the story, where the stakes are life-and-death, and in doing so, he grounds a tale that could easily slip into campy melodrama. Moreover, he imbues Watson with a sincerity and resourcefulness that win our admiration and make us want him to succeed even though he isn't Sherlock. (Speaking of the incomparable sleuth, Rick Roemer, Huck Huckaby, and Scott Shipman all appear to enjoy taking a pull on Holmes' Meerschaum pipe; all convey the same exceptional intelligence and pridefulness, though each shades them in his own way.) Alongside Stahl is Toby Minor's Dr. Evans, the asylum director, who essentially plays Watson to Watson's Holmes, deeply invested in the proceedings and following every development with bated breath.
Which is pretty much what we do, too. AP Producing Artistic Director Don Toner keeps the intermissionless show at a brisk clip, the better for Hatcher's mystery to stay one step ahead of the audience, just as Sherlock does Inspector Lestrade. That hapless policeman doesn't appear here, but Hatcher gives a tip of the deerstalker to a host of other incidents and characters in the canon. They're added delights for those who know the original adventures, but Holmes and Watson is accessible to those who never spent a day at 221-B Baker Street. All that's required to enjoy this show is the love of a mystery, an anticipation for the next clue, and a delight in every twist. As someone once said, elementary.
Holmes and WatsonAustin Playhouse at ACC Highland, 6001 Airport, 512/476-0084
Through Sept. 29
Running time: 1 hr., 20 min