ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sherlock Holmes has been a favorite of mystery lovers since Arthur Conan Doyle invented him in 1887. However, it was the stage actor and playwright, William Gillette, who created much that is most memorable about the character, including his signature line, “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.”
Gillette revised Doyle’s own unsuccessful stage rendition in the 1890s, and it was such a success that he ended up performing the titular character on stage for the next 33 years — even starring in a silent film version of the play in 1916.
Ken Ludwig, the comic playwright who gave us “Lend Me a Tenor,” has crafted a mildly amusing whodunit around Gillette and his Sherlock Holmes character that is currently being produced by Adobe Theater. I suppose the subtitle — “Holmes for the Holidays” — suggests the show is a holiday entertainment, but besides the fact that the murder takes place at Gillette’s mansion on Christmas Eve, there is nothing about the show that would qualify it as a Christmas season show. That might be a point in its favor if you are looking to eschew the many holiday offerings this time of year, but unfortunately the show does not succeed either as comedy or as an engrossing murder-mystery.
First of all, Ludwig has not written a particularly compelling mystery or laugh-out-loud comedy. But to make matters worse, the actors, as if to compensate for the play’s deficiencies, overact from beginning to end.
Expert comic timing, nuance, understatement, and the right gesture at the right time — in other words, skillful comic acting — can certainly make a mediocre comedy funny.
Unfortunately, the actors in “The Game’s Afoot” all get caught up in the same over-the-top acting style, strenuously pushing to the point of deflating the script of what comedy it possesses. There were lines that would have succeeded comically if the actor had brought it down, underplayed it in that dry manner that certain adroit comic actors employ so successfully. Of course a fast pace is important, and understatement and nuance should alternate with the manic and the zany, giving the performance dynamism.
I don’t know that you can teach comic acting; it’s a gift. But there are some things you can teach. For one, play it seriously. Comedy happens when earnestness meets the ridiculous. Play it for high stakes, and we will laugh. It’s just as hard to direct a comedy as it is to act in one, and Kathleen Welker was unfortunately unable to steer the actors in the right direction.
Amy Cundall as Aggie was the one actor who, for the most part, managed to avoid the trap of bombast. But even she, at one point, succumbed to the contagion, infected by the ostentatious and overinflated acting style of the show.
There were also moments where I thought, “Adobe just did this show,” remembering the musical “Curtains” from earlier in the season, which had almost the exact same plot. More variety would be a good idea for this group of committed thespians. Playing through Dec. 20. Go to www.adobetheater.org or call 505-898-9222 for reservations.