Before Benedict Cumberbatch starred in the incandescent puzzle palace that is Sherlock, there was William Gillette, the definitive Sherlock Holmes of his time. Tall, lean, with the manner of a late-Victorian gentleman, Gillette was the first to wear the deerstalker hat, the first to use the curved pipe, the first to create, along with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a successful Sherlock Holmes play which ran practically forever. Gillette was a delightful eccentric, who built Gillette Castle, a bizarre and wonderful edifice which is still a tourist attraction today. Booth Tarkington famously told him, “I had rather see you play Sherlock Holmes than be a child on Christmas morning.”
In Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot, Gillette invites the cast of his current production to the castle for the weekend. Murder ensues, naturally. And Gillette is there, using the unparalleled detective skills he polished over years of playing Sherlock to solve the crime, amid scathing put-downs, Algonquin-style witticisms, and rampant bad behavior among the theatrical set. Bad behavior being their forte, they never disappoint.
Director Frank Pasqualino has turned Ludwig’s deft farce into an evening of wicked fun, where behind every door is a body and behind every innocent face is a killer just waiting to strike. As Gillette, John Henderson is frighteningly sincere. As an actor, Gillette was part of the theatre in which heroes were meant to be worthy and heroines pure and eminently rescuable. Henderson captures this quality perfectly, with the increasing desperation of a host who knows that his party is not just unsuccessful but literally doomed.
Chuck Leonard, as Gillette’s best friend Felix Geisel, poses winningly on a chair to hide a dead body from the local Inspector (Michelle Fletcher). He is by turns a loyal friend, an indignant husband, and a determined accomplice to crime. He shines in every role. As his wife Madge, Pam Kasenetz has a vivacity and drive that inform her every moment on stage. She races around the room with enormous energy, eyes wide, spitting out the dialogue as if it were a dispatch from a war zone. She is hilarious.
As Aggie Wheeler, Maureen R. Goldman resembles a young Sarah Jessica Parker. She enacts her character with astuteness and charm, roaming around the stage with a gentle bewilderment which belies her razor-sharp grasp of the events at hand. Joe Quinn as Simon Bright is the quintessential jeune premier, full of energy, and ready for anything. As Martha Gillette, Patricia Spencer Smith is a funny and often surprising performer, at her best when showing motherly discomfort (“My son tells me nothing”), or intimidating anyone who dares to threaten the life of her child. Michelle Fletcher is droll, strikingly active, and fiercely original as Inspector Harriet Goring. Her Harriet adds greatly to the comedy of Act Two.
Daria Chase (Melissa Dunlap) is described as “ruthless…evil…a theatre critic, for God’s sake!” This is of course irresistible. She strides around the set like a demented Katharine Hepburn. In this case, the calla lilies will not bloom again; in fact, it is fairly certain that they will not bloom at all. Dunlap makes Daria as nasty as they come; vain, sensual, and casually cruel; but she is always, as an actress, at the top of her game. Consequently, Daria is just as comical as she is revolting.
John Downing’s set design fits in beautifully with the tone of the play. Gillette’s castle is suitably elegant and well-appointed, and replete with hidden rooms and suspiciously ornamental weapons. Costumes by Kit Sibley and Jean Schlicting are appealing and the color palette is especially striking. The women look lovely and the men, dressed impeccably for a dinner party that never quite comes off.
Lighting Design by Liz and Nancy Owens is effective without being intrusive. Sound Design by Alan Wray is tasteful, with the use of classical music adding just the right touch. Special effects by Art Snow are excellent; as are the Property Design by Amany Ezeldin and Rebecca Sheehy, and Hair/Wigs/Makeup by Dominique Thompson.
“Elementary, my dear Watson,” is one of the most well-known expressions in the English language. In The Game’s Afoot, we are reminded of why.
Running Time: Two hours and 5 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.