"An inspired whodunit"- 'The Game's Afoot' at Cleveland Play House
Like any snappy, clever drawing-room mystery, there are twists in playwright Ken Ludwig's "The Game's Afoot" that cause the audience to gasp.
But theatergoers who filled the seats opening night also drew a collective breath when the curtain at the newly minted Allen Theatre rose to reveal the set, the baronial living room of Gillette Castle, home to American actor William Gillette.
With Arthur Conan Doyle's blessing, Gillette wrote the play "Sherlock Holmes," then performed the role of the brilliant sleuth onstage for decades, earning millions. He used the proceeds to build a stone fortress on the Connecticut River and outfitted it with newfangled inventions, such as the first intercom, and built mazes, hidden rooms and secret passageways into its floor plan.
On the stage at the Cleveland Play House, scenic designer Daniel Conway has re-created the grandeur and weirdness of Gillette's manor, complete with elaborately carved wood doors, a boar's head mounted above a soaring fireplace and a trick sconce that, when pulled, causes a wall to rotate, hiding a bookcase and replacing it with a glowing Deco bar. (It's 1936, after all).
The inventive set in this inspired whodunit is matched by spot-on period costumes -- a red-and-white tower of a hat that evokes Katharine Hepburn's millinery creations in "Bringing Up Baby" is especially mouthwatering.
The plot is pure Agatha Christie, played as farce, with a touch of "All About Eve": As Gillette takes his bows as Holmes at the Palace Theatre in New York, a shot rings out, wounding him in the arm. While recuperating at home, Gillette (Donald Sage Mackay, nicely channeling both the bombast of the celebrated actor and the odd-duck quality of Holmes) invites his co-stars to his Connecticut manse.
"This is where God would live if he could afford it," marvels Simon Bright (a terrific, tic-y Rob McClure), who arrives with new wife Aggie Wheeler (a perfectly clueless ingenue with a halo of golden ringlets played by Mattie Hawkinson). Rounding out the party is Gillette's mother, Martha (a delightfully dotty Patricia Kilgarriff), and longtime couple Madge and Felix Geisel, played by Lise Bruneau and Eric Hissom with the teasing, biting repartee of Myrna Loy and William Powell in the "Thin Man" series.
It's Christmas Eve, and the visitors think they're in for an evening of Champagne and Shakespearean soliloquies, but Gillette has other plans. He intends to don Holmes' plaid deerstalker cap and flush out the fiend who tried to kill him.
When Gillette announces that he has asked one more guest to the soiree -- Daria Chase, a deliciously nasty theater critic and gossip columnist who has given virtually every thespian in the room a bad review -- his friends melt down.
"She said I played Hamlet's mother looking like a worried hamster," Madge seethes.
"I was in a play last year and appeared in a bathing suit," Simon grouses. "She wrote: 'Simon Bright's audacity in the role was largely in excess of his equipment.' "
Enter Daria, a freezing wind dripping white fur, icy jewelry and gimlet-eyed disdain -- think Cruella de Vil crossed with Hedda Hopper. Erika Rolfsrud bites into the role as though she were enjoying a thick, rare piece of filet mignon. Her Daria acts as catalyst to the live game of Clue, a batch of spiked eggnog that livens up the evening. It's hard to keep your eyes on anyone else when she is emoting, pawing a cornered gentleman or conjuring the spirits of dead actresses. (Not only does she wield a poison pen, she's a medium, too). Soon, the crew is participating in a seance to learn the name of Gillette's would-be assassin. More acts of mayhem and murder follow.
Throughout most of the sharp, witty show, director Aaron Posner keeps scenes zipping along. (A small nit: in Act 2, a few pregnant pauses played for laughs went on several beats too long, sucking the juice from the marrow of the joke.)
Even the acerbic Daria would have given this new play a rave -- though she'd be loath to admit it.