CHESTERTOWN — If you’re ready for a light-hearted distraction from the 24/7 news cycle, Church Hill Theatre has just the right 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 (possibly a few years back at Church Hill, in fact) 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 one 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 proportion of the show’s laughs. She executes (pun intended) one of the funniest and best “death” scenes you’re likely to see anywhere. An excellent performance.
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. A nice performance by an actor who’s making a real mark in the local theater community.
Maggie Garey, making her Church Hill debut after several roles at Tred Avon Theater, is delightful as Gillette’s mother, projecting an essential sweetness that conceals hidden depths of character. A nice addition to the Church Hill corps of actors.
Juanita Wieczoreck plays Inspector Harriet Goring, a role that encourages the actor to ham it up — and Wieczoreck rises to the occasion. A nice job by an actress who’s been a reliable contributor to a good number of local plays.
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 credits at Tred Avon 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, including an excellent “dying” act.
Director Norton has a number of credits as actor and director at Tred Avon, as well as 40 years as a TV director. He enthusiastically plays a small audience participation role at the beginning of Act I. He said after Sunday’s performance that getting some of the details to go smoothly — especially a prop gun that has to shoot or misfire as the script calls for it — was a challenge. But to judge by Sunday’s performance, he’s well up to it.
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 period-perfect 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. The audience Sunday was laughing almost constantly. And while the play has a few mild sexual references that might be inappropriate for the youngest theater-goers, mature teens would likely find it an enjoyable evening’s entertainment. Don’t miss this one.
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 ten or more. For reservations, call the CHT office at 410-556-6003 or go online at www.church hilltheatre.org.