Old Globe's 'Baskerville' promises to be a comedy with the chills

By James Hebert for The San Diego Union-Tribune

You might say Ken Ludwig is in his Canine Phase: On the heels of the Tony Award-winning playwright’s 2010 comedy “The Fox on the Fairway” comes his hound-haunted “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery.”

You might say that, except the “fox” in the former was more a figure of speech, while the spectral beast in “Baskerville” — which is about to receive its West Coast premiere at the Old Globe Theatre — is very much present.

It might also be a surprise to learn, though, that while the Sherlock Holmes novel upon which Ludwig based his work is a sobering crime saga, the play (which debuted early this year in Washington, D.C.) is a mix of detective yarn and comedy.

“I think there’s a real kinship between comedy and mystery,” says Ludwig, who cites the work of the literary critic Northrop Frye.

“What happens in both of them is, a lot of plot pieces are thrown up into the air, and they come down like a jigsaw puzzle and snap into a place that gives us a certain reassurance about our lives and about society.”

The comedy part, of course, will be no surprise coming from Ludwig.

His most famous play to date remains “Lend Me a Tenor,” the 1989 farce (although Ludwig dislikes the connotations of that word) that won three Tonys. (A sequel is now in the works.)

He also had a major hit with the Gershwin-based romantic comedy “Crazy for You,” which won the Tony as best musical in 1992.

“Baskerville” (directed by Josh Rhodes) takes the playwright back to his boyhood love of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes novels. (“They’ve always been a part of me, as much as they’ve been a part of anyone who loves literature,” he says.)

But the piece takes some of its inspiration from the elemental theatricality of such shows as “The 39 Steps” (as adapted from the Hitchcock movie to comic effect), and the like-minded re-imagining of Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter” by England’s Kneehigh Theatre Company.

“It was so inventive, (with) six or seven actors,” Ludwig says of the latter. “They played a ton of parts.”

True to form, the Globe production has just five actors: Tony nominee Euan Morton (of Broadway’s “Taboo” and the Globe’s 2012 “Divine Rivalry”), as Holmes; Obie Award winner Usman Ally (“The Invisible Hand”) as Dr. Watson; and Blake Segal as Man One, Andrew Kober as Man Two and Liz Wisan as Woman One.

Among them, those last three play a staggering 45 characters.

Capturing the proper tone for all this is crucial. As Ludwig puts it: “Although (the play) has a lot of laughs, there should be a sense of danger.”

And so the playwright will be on hand at the Globe to help guide what he considers a second world premiere of the play.

“It’s such an important, prestigious theater,” he says, “and this is just as important a production.

“This, to me, is really part of the opening, and a chance to get it right.”

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