Chicago Theatre Review
Holmes for the Holidays
The Game’s Afoot – Drury Lane Oakbrook
It’s a snowy Christmas Eve in 1936. William Gillette, an actor famous for playing Sherlock Holmes, has invited the cast of his play and one very bitter theatre critic to join his mother and him for the holiday in their remote Connecticut mansion. Prior to this celebratory evening an attempt was made on Gillette’s life when he suffers a gunshot wound during the curtain call of his latest performance. It’s later learned that the stage door attendant was also murdered around that same time. William, always in the role of the super sleuth, invites his friends to his home in order to secretly ferret out who’s the murderer. When one of the guests is suddenly killed and a freak storm cuts the mansion’s power, secrets are exposed and the game is truly afoot.
Prolific playwright Ken Ludwig, whose brilliant “Lend Me a Tenor” the NY Times called “one of the two great farces by a living writer,” is also famous for his revised book for the Gershwin musical “Girl Crazy,” retitled “Crazy for You.” Ludwig is also known for other comedies, such as “Moon Over Buffalo” and “Fox on the Fairway.” One of his latest plays is this comedy-mystery, described by the playwright as containing “double-crosses, triple-crosses, gunplay, murder, lies, deceit, disguises and sex. What do you expect? They’re actors.” The play premiered at the Cleveland Playhouse in 2011 and was the recipient of the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Play.
Artistic Director William Osetek makes an admirable attempt at keeping this occasionally humorous mystery as madcap and high-strung as possible, but the script doesn’t always provide him with what he needs. Pacing is also a problem, often because the production’s grandiose drawing room setting, another beautiful stage design by Kevin Depinet, dominated by floor-to-ceiling windows, a beautiful amber Art Deco skylight and a couch that spans the width of the set, is so bloody enormous. Actors are forced to fill their long crosses from the kitchen doorway to the bedroom staircase with a lot of uninspired stage business, just to keep the audience’s interest between entrances and exits. Often there are inexplicable pauses during scenes that break the momentum, and at times actors block one another, often with their backs to the audience.
Derek Hasenstab, no stranger to Chicago audiences, plays William Gillette with the requisite flourish and affectation befitting this theatrical legend. But while likable enough, Mr. Hasenstab’s performance often pales beside Rob Thomas‘ hilarious Felix Geisel, William’s friend and his costar in the Holmes play-within-a-play, as Professor Moriarty. Most often known for his starring roles in area musicals (“Next to Normal,” “Brigadoon”), it’s exciting and wonderfully refreshing to see this talented actor mining so much hilarity from this play.
Three other actors vie for the scene-stealer-of-the-year award in this production. Longtime Chicago favorite, the redoubtable Alene Robertson, playing William’s delightfully muddled mother Martha Gillette, uses her deep, baritone voice to take down other characters in the blink of an eye. She need only stare and raise her eyebrow at another actor to provoke uncontrollable laughter, and she brings down the house with several hilarious comic bits, like simply trying to put on her shoe. The second actor to watch in this production is the always excellent Wendy Robie as Inspector Goring. Providing delight on many of Chicago’s most distinguished stages, Ms. Robie’s eccentric characterizations always leave lasting impressions. In this play she arrives in Act II responding to a phone call that a murder may have been committed; and her star-struck police detective, who secretly longs to tread the boards herself, is forced to wrestle with Gillette in order to take charge of the investigation. Angela Ingersoll, who’s appeared nationwide in many noteworthy roles, will be remembered here for her over-the-top portrayal of caustic theatre critic, Daria Chase. Revenge rages and the venom drips as she seeks to belittle this gaggle of actors for causing various indignities and personal wrongs. Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that Ms. Chase’s farcical performance, particularly in Act II, provokes some of the show’s biggest laughs.
Although not one of Ken Ludwig’s best plays, this production is pleasantly amusing and often extremely funny as it blends mirth with murder and mayhem. Employing the talents of eight area comic actors, William Osetek has staged a perky, lighthearted diversion that offers theatergoers the perfect end-of-the-summer entertainment.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 4-October 19 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the Drury Lane box office at 630-530-0111, Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000 or by going to www.drurylane.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.