It’s Christmas Eve, 1936. While the nation struggles with the Great Depression, popular Broadway actor William Gillette invites his fellow actors from a sold-out Sherlock Holmes whodunit to his palatial “castle” on the banks of the Connecticut River in East Haddam. They arrive expecting to celebrate the holidays, but he has other plans.
Earlier that week someone standing in the staff area at the rear of the theater shot and wounded him in the shoulder while he was performing onstage at New York’s Palace Theatre. Now, assuming that the shooter had to be a person connected to the show because the doorman would not have let a stranger in, he decides to carry his Holmes role into real life by investigating the cast, their husbands and wives. The mystery soon deepens when the stage doorman and a party-crashing New York theater critic are also murdered.
Who was responsible for all of this mayhem, and why? That, in a nutshell, is the plot of Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot, currently onstage in a lively and entertaining production at the Ross Valley Players’ (RVP) Barn Theatre. You might think it sounds like a typical Agatha Christie logic-based mystery, but you’d be wrong. Although Ludwig styles his play like a “comedy thriller,” the blatant punning of his subtitle, Holmes for the Holidays, reveals that the author of Lend Me a Tenor is up to his old tricks. Game is a pastiche in which anything goes—melodrama, satire, parody, broad farce—with only the slenderest thread of mystery and some judgmental remarks about personal immorality to bind it all together.
That can be a slippery slope, of course. Too much nonsense, too much silliness, too many unexpected twists and turns, and you risk losing the audience’s involvement. On the other hand, it provides a director who knows what he or she is doing and actors who are uninhibited enough to shed all semblance of acceptable behavior, the freedom to shed normal constraints as they mine the script’s numerous comic situations. Although RVP’s director Christian Haines and his acting ensemble occasionally stray into over-indulgence, the decision to play the text as broadly as possible mainly succeeds.
Case in point: Near the end of Act 1, Rachel Kayhan as Daria Chase, the snarky theater critic who has the dirt on everyone, has a knife driven into her back during a storm-induced power blackout. Her monumental death struggle is ignored at first by the uncomprehending William Gillette (Robert Molossi), who is joined moments later by fellow actor Felix Geisel (Tom Hudgens). When the two men finally realize what has happened, to avoid scandal there is a frantic debate about what to do with the body. Different locations are tried, without success. The process reaches a feverish intensity with the arrival on the scene of wacky Inspector Harriet Goring (Pamela Ciochetti). It is all played at breakneck speed, to great comic effect.
Isabelle Grimm and Elliott Hanson are well-cast as newlyweds who may have something to hide—the former’s multimillionaire husband died in a mysterious skiing accident a year earlier, leaving her his entire estate. Sumi Narendran is a strong presence as Madge Geisel, and Ellen Brooks (William’s mother Martha) is fun to watch as she gradually reveals that she is not exactly the sweet little old lady she appears to be.
The Game’s Afoot is not a play for everyone. Some may find it too confusing. For others, the incessant shtick may wear thin after awhile. But for those who enjoy watching actors who have been directed to extend themselves to their outer limits do their stuff, this RVP production is pure joy.
NOW PLAYING: The Game’s Afoot runs through December 10 at the Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross; 415/456-9555; rossvalleyplayers.com.