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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Yes, the stranger-than-fiction incident that inspired Michael Mitnik's Mysterious Circumstances remains unsolved. Murder or suicide? Nobody has decided. Nor are there rules that require a solution. Mysterious Circumstances has other things on its mind.
But come on. This is a play about the untimely death of a Sherlock Holmes; obsessed academic; a story that also features Holmes' creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and an appearance by the deerstalker-wearing sleuth himself. Throw us a bone here, Mr. playwright, or at least a fresh red herring or two. Whatever else you're trying to pull off in this Sherlockian endeavor of a drama, please also take a stab at the conundrum. Even if you can't prove it, crack the bloody case!
There are some games being afoot-ed in Matt Shakman's production at the Geffen Playhouse. The work is deftly staged, consistently engaging, and even contains some neat bits of illusion and visual trickery that seem to pop up at the Geffen with some regularity. (You've got the long-running Invisible Tango in the smaller Skirball theater next door. This theater does love its magic.). Shakman's Mysterious cast is having a high old time of things with the splendid Alan Tudyk leading the charge.
To say that Richard Lancelyn Green (Tudyk) has a bug for Sherlock Holmes would be akin to saying our president is no shrinking violet. Green amassed a private collection or more than 40,000 volumes of Sherlockiana. His biography of Conan Doyle was expected to reach three volumes. He also curated Letters to Sherlock Holmes, a collection of posts from individuals who asked the fictional detective to help solve their problems. Eccentric though he clearly was (and Tudyk rarely takes him into full-scale nut mode), Green enjoyed a circle of equally quaint friends amidst the similarly Holmes-obsessed Doyleans, Sherlockians and Baker Street Irregulars. He lived alone and he had a Holy Grail: tracking down an elusive box thought to contain a trove of unpublished Doyle works.
Green also had enemies, one of whom may have hated him enough to take his life. The play opens in 2004 with the discovery of his body (which Shakman stages inventively, as though we're observing the corpse from an aerial view) in his flat, strangled with a shoelace. Then we shuttle backwards to earlier in 2004, to some significant events of Green's life and also to 1894 when a tortured and fed-up Conan Doyle (Austin Durant) is watching his wife Touie (Helen Sadler) succumb to tuberculosis and the author aching to try his hand at something other than detective stories. As Doyle stubbornly refuses to write new mysteries, Holmes (Tudyk) and sidekick Watson (Ramiz Monsef) arrive on the scene, eager to work but with no cases to investigate. The work, it appears has dried up and they are a bit adrift. Tudyk and Monsef's takes on Holmes and Watson here is refreshingly offbeat. .
Holmes may figure into the action, but the play is Green's. We see our hero going about his business, lecturing, fumbling his way through dates with various men, and paying detectives to track down the box. His quest eventually leads him to an audience with Jean Conan Doyle (Sadler again), the author's septuagenarian daughter who is as protective of her legendary father and his legacy as Green is himself.
Between all these characters &emdash; both fictional and historic &emdash; operating three centuries apart, there is quite a bit of business in play. There is enough sinister happenings and detectives detecting to give the production the air of a crackling mystery-thriller. Director Shakman and his technical team move everything along at a good action-y clip, carving out windows for humor (mostly courtesy of the Sherlock groupies) and occasional bits of pathos.
Scenic designer Brett J. Banakis does wonderful work both with Green's veritable vault of books (a great place to discover a body) and even with the creation of Reichenbach Falls (the site of Holmes's death in the story) for the final scene. Elizabeth Harper lights the endeavor with finesse and the production offers up some nifty illusions courtesy of illusion designers Francis Menotti and David Kwong. Between a shape-shifting box and some “don't trust initial appearances” trickery, Menotti and Kwong keep us guessing.
Tudyk, a frequent voice of characters in animated films, is also a pleasure to watch live. By all accounts, Richard Lancelyn Green was quite the character, and Tudyk locates both the man's singularity of purpose and his shy charisma. “You're cute,” the men he meets keep affirming, and by George, this odd duck is exactly that. Durant is strong as Doyle and Hugo Armstrong turns in excellent work as a rival Homes scholar known as The American and a kooky groupie named Gibner.
With its interest in character, Mysterious Circumstance is clearly looking to stake out territory deeper than a throwaway on-stage whodunit. At this it largely succeeds. 'I know you enjoy the stories of Sherlock Homes, but you're not inside of one,' Gibner informs a panicked Green. "It's time to accept reality.' Except he is, and it isn't. And besides, what fun would that be? We do love a mystery, but how welcome a solution would also have been.
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Written by Michael Mitnick Inspired by The New Yorker “Mysterious Circumstances: The Strange Death of a Sherlock Holmes Fanatic by David Grann
Directed by Matt Shakman
Cast: Hugo Armstrong, John Bobek, Austin Durant, Leo Marks, Ramiz Monsef, Helen Sadler and Alan Tudyk
Costume Design: E.B. Brooks
Set Design: Brett J. Banakis
Lighting Design: Elizabeth Harper
Projection Designers: Kaitlyn Pieitras and Jason H. Thompson
Illusion Designers: Francis Menotti and Daid Kwong Production Stage Manager: Brooke Baldwin
Plays through July 21, 2019 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-5454, www.geffenplayhouse.com
Running time: two hours and five minutes with one 15 minute intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson
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