Audiences are treated to a beautiful set, gorgeous costumes, flickering lights and lively performances in Ken Ludwig’s “The Game’s Afoot.” But there’s something amiss in the playwright’s awkward blend of comedy and murder mystery.
It’s simultaneously over-the-top and not enough of any one thing to make it a fully satisfying evening.
Ludwig has had success as a modern farceur with such plays as “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Moon Over Buffalo.” Setting his shows in a theatrical milieu, provides characters with huge egos and over-dramatic desires and passions.
In “The Game’s Afoot,” the scene is a Christmas weekend gathering at the Connecticut estate of William Gillette, the American stage actor who grew famous by playing Sherlock Holmes for 30 years. After he is accidentally shot during a performance, he invites his company members for a weekend of sleuthing to determine who fired the shot. He doesn’t count on a actual murder happening.
Director Greg Leaming, who loves a good farce, has staged the show with a lot of spirit and a company of actors who are up for the game. The characters are played with broad strokes and fine details that make them engaging and more than caricatures. There’s also a hint of mystery because each character is harboring secrets, which are brought out by the arrival of Daria Chase, a gargoyle of a theater critic and gossip columnist.
Gail Rastorfer relishes the role of Daria, who mercilessly needles and cajoles the others to get what she wants. She gets the best lines and is the butt of the funniest jokes. “She was evil. She was a theater critic for God’s sake,” Gillette’s mother, Martha, screams in despair.
Daria’s targets includes Gillette himself played with flourish by Bryan Torfeh, who has come to personify bigger-than-life characters at Asolo Rep. Eric Hissom is equally self-aggrandizing as Felix Geisel, a Moriarity to Gillette’s Holmes on stage and off. Elizabeth King-Hall is lovely and brittle as Felix’s wife, Madge, and Brittany Proia and Joseph McGranaghan put a good deal of shading into their roles as young company members with the most secrets. Peggy Roeder is a daffy delight as Martha. Carolyn Michel has fun as a British police inspector who claims to miss the clues right in front of her.
That’s easy to understand when Ludwig’s convoluted plot is so full of twists that go beyond red herrings and strain to keep the story going.
As the story wanders off course, you can focus on the rich details in Judy Gallen’s set, which features walls painted with images of Holmes at work and lots of theatrical props and newfangled gadgets, or Mary Louise Geiger’s stormy lighting design.
Eduardo Sicangco’s costumes are full of their own color and life, matching the characters with the fur-draped coats and luxurious party outfits.
Snow falls erratically on this stormy night, coming down in occasional clumps. I’m not sure if that’s intentional or an opening night problem, but it seems emblematic of a play in which the right ingredients don’t create the tastiest of stews.
THE GAME’S AFOOT
By Ken Ludwig. Directed by Greg Leaming. Reviewed March 29, Asolo Repertory Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. In repertory through May 12. Tickets are $26-$73. 351-8000; asolorep.org