Theater Review: “The Game’s Afoot” — Ploddingly

By Martin B. Copenhaver

Murder mystery and farce can coexist in the same play … for a time, at least. Eventually, the two will pull apart, however, as they do in this production.

The Game’s Afoot; or Holmes for the Holidays by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Fred Sullivan Jr. Staged by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, 2nd Floor, Boston, through December 17.

Pamela Lambert, Peter Mill, Remo Airaldi, and Kelby T. Akin in the Lyric Stage production of The Game’s Afoot. Photo: Mark S. Howard

Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot; or Holmes for the Holidays has something of an identity crisis — it can’t decide whether it wants to be a murder mystery or a farce.

The two genres have much in common. Both depend on elaborate plots to such an extent that character development can be given only scant attention; as a result, they both rely on stock characters. Both feature surprise, usually with as many sudden twists and turns as an amusement park ride.

These common elements mean that murder mystery and farce can coexist in the same play … for a time, at least. Eventually, the two will pull apart, however, as they do in this production. A murder mystery requires a slow and tense unfolding interrupted by sudden action. Picture a slow walk down a long hall when an intruder suddenly appears from a doorway. By contrast, a farce depends on a consistently fast pace, with quick movements and rat-a-tat dialogue throughout.

More basic still, eventually a production must aim to frighten an audience or make them laugh, because it is difficult, if not impossible, to do both at the same time.

The Game’s Afoot employs many familiar elements of a whodunit. A group of actors are stuck together in a house and cannot leave — in this case, the home of William Gillette, who made a career playing Sherlock Holmes in the early part of the 20th century. Gillette has recently been shot while on stage and survived. There is reason to believe that the perpetrator of that attempted murder is in the house. A number of the guests have clear motives. There is also generous use of tropes associated with mysteries, such as lightning storms that cause blackouts, a phone line that goes dead.

Much of the first act is spent introducing the assembled characters and establishing their possible motives. The dialogue is rather leaden, however, weighed down by Gillette and others quoting Shakespeare at length (even some of the characters end up complaining they are bored by all the references to the Bard).

The director, Fred Sullivan Jr., valiantly tries to counteract the plodding plot by having the actors speak very fast and move from one end of the stage to the other while delivering their lines, without any apparent motivation, other than to interject energy where there is none in the script. This aimless hyperactivity disorder is most exaggerated as various characters bound up the stairs to a landing where they deliver lines that could just as easily have been given while seated on the couch.

Eventually — and none too soon — another character arrives, the drama critic and columnist, Daria Chase (wonderfully played by Maureen Keiller). Her arrival adds both focus and spice. Daria has an acid tongue and, over time, everyone there has been burned. The joke does not need to be articulated that when you have a drama critic and a group of actors stuck in the same house, immediately you have a potential murder victim and a group of suspects. Unfortunately, not all of Daria’s bons mots are all that bon (after all, it is harder to be Dorothy Parker than it looks). For instance, one of the actors, Madge, makes clear that she cannot forgive Daria: “She said I played Hamlet’s mother looking like a worried hamster.” That may be an irksome review, but is it really all that clever?

By far the funniest scene in the play — and the one that finally lands it squarely in the territory of farce — occurs at the end of Act One. Daria has been stabbed in the back by an unknown person. The knife remains lodged in her back as she tries in various ways to communicate her plight to Gillette in one-word exclamations (“Back! Back!”) and wordless cries (“Nargh!”), none of which Gillette understands.

In the second act, Daria is presumed dead. (Hint, hint. No, spoiler alert!) There are slapstick, and largely unsuccessful, attempts to hide her body. Through it all, Keiller manages to make her character even funnier in death than she was in life.

Most of the cast is excellent, with Keiller leading the way. As Gillette, Kelby T. Akin — whose timing and pacing keep the show moving, even when that is a challenging assignment — is the spinning top at the center of much of the action. Peter Mill does as much as he can with the role of Inspector Goring, which is perhaps the stockiest of stock characters in the play.

The one unfortunate instance of miscasting is Sarah Sinclair as Martha Gillette, William’s elderly mother. Sinclair is decades younger than the character she is asked to play. Even with a white wig, mincing steps, and a quavering voice (à la Katherine Hepburn circa On Golden Pond), she looks like something out of a high school production, where it is necessary for very young actors to play characters who are much older, and seldom convincingly.

The elegant set, full of doors — necessary for a farce, with all its comings and goings — serves so well that it is like a mischievous character in the drama.

There are debates about what makes a Christmas movie or play. My son contends that Die Hard is a Christmas movie, but It’s a Wonderful Life is not because Christmas is more central to the plot of the former, while the holiday makes only a cameo appearance at the end of the latter. By any measure, The Game’s Afoot; or Holmes for the Holidays is not a Christmas (or holiday) play. I counted only two glancing references to the holiday. There is a Christmas tree, but it is jammed in an obscure corner of the set, as if it were another of the dead bodies that needs to be hidden. That’s it. To be sure, this is frothy fare, befitting a lighthearted holiday celebration. Besides, associating this play with the holidays does allow for that particularly lame pun in the subtitle. So, who am I to quibble?

Martin B. Copenhaver, the author of nine books, lives in Cambridge and Woodstock, Vermont.

1 Comment

  1. Mark Favermann on November 28, 2023 at 8:12 am

    Though Arthur Conan Doyle once told William Gillette that he could do whatever he wanted with the character and plays of Holmes, true Sherlockians must be cringing from what sounds like a very lame “Pastiche.” Here, the Game seems to be a foot in the mouth.

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