Arts » Theater

Murder, He Wrote

Ken Ludwig's formulaic comedy still keeps the laughs coming



Those of us who howl our way through "Happy Birthday" stand in awe of singers who are blessed with perfect pitch.

Likewise, many playwrights must admire Ken Ludwig, the author of The Game's Afoot (or Holmes for the Holidays), a murder mystery/comedy having its world premiere at the Cleveland Play House.

Ludwig demonstrates the theatrical equivalent of perfect pitch, both in this new work and in his past efforts — including Leading Ladies, which CPH produced in 2004. He unerringly constructs amusing, fast-paced, and moderately intelligent entertainments that require little from the audience except to hang on for the ride. This assures a long and profitable life for his scripts among producers, directors, and the theater-going community at large.

Even though the material in Afoot feels awfully familiar and less than ambitious, the Play House cast gives it a snappy, professional gloss.

Lest you be misled by the title, Sherlock and Dr. Watson never make an appearance in this play. Instead, the manic activity swirls around William Gillette, the famed real-life actor of the first half of the 20th century who made a fortune with his on-stage impersonations of the world's favorite cokehead crime solver.

It is Christmas Eve 1936, and the histrionic Gillette and his elderly mother Martha are playing host at his Connecticut mansion to four cast mates from Gillette's latest Holmes melodrama. Aggie and Simon are married to each other, as are Felix and Madge, and they are all evah-so-theatrical, breaking into song or character at the least provocation.

They sober up a bit when the venomous gossip columnist Daria Chase arrives. In addition to being a gold-plated bitch, Daria is also apparently a medium who conducts séances.

And when she encourages everyone to participate in ringing up a deceased person, a woman in the room is found dead — at first as a joke, then for real. Gillette then leaps to the fore, playing Holmes for real as he tries to unravel the murder.

Ludwig certainly has an ear for clever punch lines. Cosmopolitan queen Daria, rhapsodizing about the clean air at the country castle, muses "I haven't smelled air like this since I was a little girl in Kansas. Or wherever it was."

The playwright freely samples comedy bits from elsewhere. The rotating hidden-room-in-a-wall gags are straight out of Abbott & Costello's haunted house movies. And much of the shtick as Gillette and company clumsily move and manipulate the corpse echoes the cadaver capers in Weekend at Bernie's.

In a final nod to outside sources, Ludwig even introduces an Inspector Clouseau-like detective: small-town inspector Harriet Goring. Played wittily by Sarah Day, she amiably bumbles along, missing key bits of evidence when she's not auditioning for a part in Gillette's next show.

Director Aaron Posner keeps the doors slamming and the laughs coming right on cue, whipping his cast into a tight ensemble performance. As Gillette, Donald Sage MacKay is properly full of himself, and Eric Hissom garners plenty of laughs as Felix, Gillette's best friend and rival who plays Moriarty to Gillette's Holmes.

In the to-die-for role of snarky Daria, Erika Rolfsrud leaves no square inch of scenery unchewed as she verbally knifes her colleagues. She is particularly enjoyable when trying desperately to seduce a repelled Felix.

Scenic designer Daniel Conway's elaborate set, recreating the detailed interior of Gillette's actual castle, is so gorgeous that Howard Hanna could plant a sign out front and sell it within hours.

In true whodunit style, there are several twists before the culprit is captured. And even if you can predict the outcome two hours earlier (and you can), you have to admit the comic sensibility on display is delightful, undemanding, and sublimely marketable.

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