‘Game’s Afoot’ a must-see comic mys­tery

Record Observer - - Arts & Entertainment - By PETER HECK pheck@thekent­coun­tynews.com

CHURCH HILL — If you’re ready for a light-hearted dis­trac­tion, Church Hill Theatre has just the thing — “The Game’s Afoot, or Holmes for the Hol­i­days,” a thor­oughly amus­ing pe­riod mys­tery by Ken Lud­wig, di­rected by John Nor­ton.

Lud­wig is the au­thor of “Lend Me a Tenor,” and any­one who saw that play will ap­pre­ci­ate his comic in­ven­tive­ness. This one’s got plenty of laughs, but it also has a solid enough mys­tery el­e­ment to have won the Mys­tery Writ­ers of Amer­ica’s Edgar award in 2012.

Set in the mid-1930s, the play takes the fa­mous ac­tor Wil­liam Gil­lette, one of the first to por­tray Sher­lock Holmes, as its cen­tral fig­ure. Af­ter a brief in­tro­duc­tory scene, in which Gil­lette and his com­pany of ac­tors put on one of his plays, the ac­tion moves to Gil­lette’ coun­try home in Con­necti­cut — a “cas­tle” built with the pro­ceeds from his lu­cra­tive stage ca­reer. (The cas­tle, like Gil­lette, is real — now a Con­necti­cut state park.)

Gil­lette is throw­ing a Christ­mas party for his fel­low ac­tors and their spouses — and a New York drama critic and gos­sip colum­nist who wants to see the fa­mous ac­tor at home as back­ground for an ar­ti­cle she’s writ­ing. The prob­lem is, she’s trashed ev­ery one of them in her cut­ting re­views. Ac­ri­mony en­sues, and some­one ends up be­ing mur­dered.

The rest of the play re­volves around Gil­lette’s at­tempts to solve the mur­der. Of course, he nat­u­rally falls into his Sher­lock Holmes stage per­sona. And ev­ery­one is a sus­pect, in­clud­ing the po­lice in­spec­tor who shows up to in­ves­ti­gate.

Jim Land­skroener plays Gil­lette, in a nu­anced dead­pan that per­fectly fits the char­ac­ter. Part of the com­edy de­pends on the great ac­tor’s con­vic­tion that he’s ac­tu­ally a great de­tec­tive — a con­vic­tion that says more about Gil­lette’s ego than any ac­tual abil­ity as a sleuth. Both he and the po­lice in­spec­tor drew mul­ti­ple laughs as they struck Sher­lock­ean poses with deer­stalker caps and pipes. Land­skroener makes that aspect of the char­ac­ter laugh­able and sym­pa­thetic at the same time.

Diane Land­skroener is on fire as Daria Chase, the catty drama critic and gos­sip colum­nist. Her per­for­mance com­bines phys­i­cal com­edy and sharp repar­tee along with spot-on tim­ing to gen­er­ate a healthy por­tion of the show’s laughs. She ex­e­cutes (pun in­tended) one of the fun­ni­est and best “death” scenes you’re likely to see any­where.

James Diggs takes the role of Felix Geisel, Gil­lette’s long­time friend and fel­low ac­tor. He does a great job, mug­ging his way through sev­eral comic scenes as he tries to get Gil­lette’s at­ten­tion with­out the po­lice of­fi­cer notic­ing.

Mag­gie Garey, mak­ing her Church Hill de­but af­ter sev­eral roles with the Tred Avon Play­ers, is de­light­ful as Gil­lette’s mother, pro­ject­ing an es­sen­tial sweet­ness that con­ceals hid­den depths of char­ac­ter.

Juanita Wiec­zoreck plays In­spec­tor Har­riet Goring, a role that en­cour­ages the ac­tor to ham it up, and Wiec­zoreck rises to the oc­ca­sion.

Lind­sey Ham­mer and Kirby Pow­ell are en­ter­tain­ing in the roles of Ag­gie Wheeler and Si­mon Bright, young ac­tors in Gil­lette’s play. The two are asked to go through a num­ber of dif­fer­ent moods, and they are on the mark with each turn of the plot. Both are mak­ing their CHT de­buts, though Ham­mer has sev­eral TAP cred­its, and Pow­ell has ap­peared at the Garfield Cen­ter.

Laura Wallin, mak­ing her de­but as an ac­tress, does a nice job as Madge Giesel, Felix’s hus­band. The role is an­other that de­mands a wide range of moods, and Wallin cap­tures them well, in­clud­ing some nice phys­i­cal com­edy at sev­eral points.

The set is one of CHT’s best, with medieval armor and weapons dis­played on the walls. A ro­tat­ing “hid­den” bar be­comes a key part of the plot at a cou­ple of cru­cial points. Ku­dos to Michael White­hill for the de­sign and Car­men Grasso for his con­struc­tion skills. The Christ­mas tree in one cor­ner of the stage is an es­pe­cially nice touch.

The cos­tumes are pe­ri­od­per­fect, as well — Diane Land­skroener’s gown is es­pe­cially strik­ing, but that’s just the ic­ing on the cake. Given the for­mal Christ­mas party set­ting, ev­ery­one’s ap­pro­pri­ately dressed to the nines. Wiec­zoreck did the cos­tum­ing, as well as act­ing, earn­ing dou­ble con­grat­u­la­tions.

On the whole, “The Game’s Afoot” is as much fun as any­thing on lo­cal stages in a long time. While the play has a few mild sex­ual ref­er­ences that might be in­ap­pro­pri­ate for the youngest the­ater-go­ers, ma­ture teens likely would find it an en­joy­able evening’s en­ter­tain­ment.

Per­for­mances are 8 p.m. Fri­days and Satur­days and 2 p.m. Sun­days. Tick­ets are $20 for adults and $10 for stu­dents, with spe­cial prices for groups of 10 or more. For reser­va­tions, call the CHT of­fice at 410-556-6003 or go on­line at www.church­hillthe­atre.org.

PHOTO BY STEVEN G. ATKIN­SON

From left, Laura Wallin, James Diggs, Diane Land­skroener, Jim Land­skroener, Mag­gie Garey, and Lind­sey Ham­mer strike a dra­matic pose as Wil­liam Gil­lette (Jim Land­skroener) at­tempts to fig­ure out “who­dunit” in Church Hill Theatre’s hi­lar­i­ous pro­duc­tion of “The Game’s Afoot, or Holmes for the Hol­i­days.”

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