WEST VALLEY CITY — The premise is delightful (the execution, not so much). Playwright Ken Ludwig chose real-life William Gillette— a famous actor/writer/director from the early 20th century quite famous for originating the stage role of Sherlock Holmes— as our hero for the evening. Slightly eccentric in his own right, Gillette has invited a few close friends to his Connecticut castle (complete with secret passage ways, hidden microphones, and a special lever or two) in order to get to the bottom of a previous attempt on his life. The story takes a twist at intermission when a different body falls to the ground and the local inspector shows up at the door.
The script is dreadful. The plotting is more suited for a cheap murder-mystery dinner theater than what one would hope for in a venue like the Hale. The space deserves quality writing. What’s more, the audience deserves quality writing. The success of Hale Centre Theatre has placed it in a position of influence in the Utah theatre community. Producing a script like The Game’s Afoot is, simply put, irresponsible.
Don’t get me wrong. The cast and crew do an admirable job of carrying the show in spite of their source material. Mitch Hall plays a solid William Gillette. His delight in the moment is mildly contagious. There’s a fun chemistry between Gillette and Felix Geisel (Cody K. Carlson). Their antics with the Act 2 corpse had me in a healthy bit of stitches.
Speaking of the corpse, critics will despise the character of Daria Chase (Britany Fullmer) though the blame falls primarily on Ludwig’s shallow script. Alive she is unbearable, as a corpse she is underused. The character that is written for us to hate, we hate. Sadly, we don’t love to hate her, we just dislike her because she is poorly written. With a character written so shallow it is a task for any actress to give her any depth. It’s lamentable that this character was resigned to being a comedic prop as a dead body. Ludwig either needed to let us WANT her dead, or kill her off sooner and carry on the hijinks with her corpse a bit more.
Emily Bell, Adam Dietlein and Kylee Bird (as Madge, Simon, and Aggi, respectively) are respectable in their roles. Bell’s occasional sass was refreshing; Dietlein and Bird’s back and forth was fluid. To be honest, that is perhaps one of the greatest compliments I can give to this cast. The pacing was incredible. They were a tremendously tight ensemble and it’s thanks to that quick back and forth that I forgave most faults in plotting and character development. I was okay, for the most part, that I wasn’t going to deeply know these characters. That pacing is needed in a comedy thriller and I will applaud this cast and director for it.
I will confess, I had a mildly pleasant evening and would have forgiven the play’s downfalls, but the final two scenes undid me. I felt as thought the playwright figured he ought to wrap up the show, and then repented 3 minutes later. There are quality actors in this production, and I’ll applaud director David Nieman on his attempt to have fun with the show, but when given such an amateur text there are not many more ways you can attempt to salvage it.
The scenic design, as always, is appropriate, functional, and with just enough wow to remind us that yes, that stage cost a lot of money. Lighting and costumes fell right in line with the set. Sound design was delightful and reminded me of other mystery standards like Clue, Murder She Wrote, and DeathTrap.
So why does Hale Centre Theatre continue to produce Ken Ludwig scripts? Yes, his plays are big name titles that have often been produced on Broadway. Personally, I’m a huge fan of Crazy for You (though I admit it may be more likely attributed to my affinity over Gershwin and the music than the script itself). The last Ludwig show I reviewed at the Hale was The Three Musketeers and it received about the same criticism. A production of The Three Musketeers in Provo by a different reviewer echoed my sentiments, so it isn’t just me.
Thank you, Hale, for introducing Salt Lake to new plays. Care to introduce us to a new playwright next time?