Before this review gets into details, here’s what you really need to know: there aren’t many performances left of Ken Ludwig’s “The Game’s Afoot” by Reston Community Players and you need to get tickets before they are all gone. It’s a great show guaranteed to keep you laughing and guessing until the final curtain. Mystery solved!
In the great tradition of small cast, murder mysteries – a la Agatha Christie – “The Game’s Afoot” mixes witty dialogue with brilliant comedic bits to tell this theatrical tale of murder, deception, a séance, and surprises galore. The clever and hilarious script is by Washington DC area’s own prolific playwright, Ken Ludwig, who has penned many successful plays, such as “Fox on the Fairway,” “Moon Over Buffalo,” “Lend Me a Tenor,” and the book of the “new” Gershwin musical, “Crazy for You,” to name just a handful.
It’s a great show guaranteed to keep you laughing and guessing until the final curtain. Mystery solved!
Ludwig’s affection for his subject matter is palpable in this nearly farcical murder mystery. Here the playwright evokes none other than Sherlock Holmes himself; more specifically, the embodiment of the world’s greatest consulting detective, Mr. William Gillette. Long before Basil Rathbone donned the deerstalker hat on the silver screen (followed by countless other actors) Gillette created his own cottage industry from Holmes, with the permission of the original author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Gillette was what was known a century or more ago as an actor-manager – in other words, he ran his own theatre company as well as played starring roles. In 1899, Gillette’s stage adaptation of Conan Doyle’s detective, “Sherlock Holmes,” was a huge Broadway and touring hit. The play made Gillette a wealthy man and one of the biggest stage stars of his day. The action of “The Game’s Afoot” picks up at the end of Gillette’s long career, just after he is wounded onstage by an unknown gunman, circa 1936. Cue the “dun-dun-DUN!”
Another factual detail Ludwig weaves seamlessly and effectively into the play is Gillette’s funhouse of a mansion. The profits from playing Holmes for two decades (plus the royalties) afforded the actor the chance to have a faux castle built on the side of the river in East Haddam, Connecticut. Gillette, ever theatrical, filled the castle with secret rooms, early electrical gadgets, and even a mini-railroad that surrounded the estate. (It is now a curious tourist destination. Click here to find out more information.)
As depicted on the stage at the Reston Community Center by the skillful scenic designer Nicolas Queyrane and set dressing designer Kate Keifer, the great room of Gillette’s mansion is a veritable man-cave of armor, weapons, and stately furniture that would be right at home in merry old England. As the curtain rose on opening night, audience gasps and spontaneous applause for the magnificent setting was notable.
The cast is more than up to the task of portraying the hammy actors who are thrust into a murderous evening of laughs and danger. Leading man Tim Silk has a field day as Gillette. Charming and idiosyncratic, Silk embodies the stage star with a commanding presence that does not overwhelm his fellow actors. He is blessed with the hawk-like nose for which Gillette which gives Silk a particularly Holmesian profile. In fact, Silk also gets to play Holmes as Gillette slips into his stage persona when assisting the quirky police inspector, played with relish by Carolyn Heier.
Silk is matched onstage by fellow Gillette actor and best friend, Felix Geisel, played here with impeccable timing and comic verve by Zell Murphy, who makes a great second banana. Silk and Murphy reminded me at times of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby or Abbott and Costello in their onstage camaraderie and their way around the lines and business.
Among the suspects (and victim), the capable cast is rounded out by Charlene Sloan as Felix’s saucy-tongued spouse, Madge; Alexa Yarboro as Aggie, Gillette’s ingénue (with secrets!); Nathan McGraw as the young character actor Simon; Susan Garvey as Gillette’s formidable mother; and Katie Kramer as the acidic theatre critic and columnist Daria, who uses her bombshell good looks to her own advantage. Also as Daria, Kramer makes for a most memorable psychic medium in another one of the play’s hilarious extended scenes. Think Madame Arcati crossed with Marilyn Monroe and Carol Burnett and you get a snapshot of her scene-stealing performance.
The entire cast works together like a finely tuned machine to elicit every possible laugh from Ludwig’s savvy script. The actors occasionally straddle the line between naturalism and outright camp, but not enough to propel them into the land of caricature. Director Liz Mykietyn keeps the action moving at a breakneck pace so there’s never a dull moment throughout the two-hour-plus running time.
Farce is perhaps my favorite theatrical form and “The Game’s Afoot” is enough of a kissing cousin between comedy and murder mystery to satisfy anyone with even a tiny funny bone and a nose for whodunit.
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Advisory: This production is rated PG-13 for some staged violence. The show also uses theatrical haze, fog, gunshots and strobe effects.
Ken Ludwig’s “The Game’s Afoot” runs through February 1, 2020, at the Reston Community Center, 2310 Colts Neck Road, Reston. For tickets, visit the Community Center box office (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 4-9 pm; Saturday from 1-5 pm; and 2 hours before any ticketed performance); call 703-476-4500 (press 3 when prompted), or click here.