If you read the promotional material for Ken Ludwig’s Moriarty: The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, now at the Cleveland Play House, it might interest you. He promises that this light parody of Sherlock Holmes will create “danger — and laughs! — around every corner.” Unfortunately, it does little of either.
It turns out that the title itself is also misleading, as the play is neither new (in terms of the humor offered) nor very adventurous. It has the comedic profile of an outdated episode of The Love Boat combined with the exciting tension of Scooby-Doo. Ken Ludwig’s Moriarty has so many annoying jokes and well-worn tropes that the low-energy script elicits sighs rather than roars.
To construct this kludge, the playwright took various plot points from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original works and then glued them together to create his “new” plot. In this case, a bunch of important letters go missing, and apparently Sherlock’s nemesis Moriarty is involved. Then along comes American actress Irene Adler (Olivia Gilliat), who transforms into a super picker to help Sherlock and the loyal but hapless Dr. Watson (Nick Gaswirth) solve the mystery.
Ludwig took this idea and added a few characters, making it confusing but not interesting. These people — played by Jeffrey M. Bender and Telly Gale, with a couple added by Ms. Gilliat — are the central trick in the playwright’s stolen-plot plays genre (he also wrote Ken Ludwig’s similarly structured The Hound of the Baskervilles).
The concept of rapid character change may be ludicrous (see John Buchan’s The 39 Steps), but this is not the case. The jumps of actors from one character to another do not happen quickly and are not obvious, which would allow the audience to admire (and yes, smile) the dexterity of the theater. Instead, various minor characters appear at odd moments for no apparent reason.
But Ludwig isn’t the only one guilty of theatrical efforts that feel exhausted long before they’re finished. It’s directed by Mark Brokaw and Michael Barakiwa, each of whom obviously relied on the other to come up with clever comedic ideas. FYI: When Holmes and Adler find themselves in a narrow passageway and get stuck facing each other, neither director can find a way to prolong the moment to make it goofier or sexier. Even the evil Moriarty (Bender) turns out to be pretty dim, as the villainous masterminds say.
This laissez-faire direction, along with Ludwig’s threadbare script, holds together a play that runs just 105 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission. Why so short? Well, for one thing, the actors don’t have to wait for the laughter to stop.
Chika Shimitsu’s colorful design gets off to a good start with the luxurious library in Holmes’ apartment, complete with tall bookshelves. But the set quickly loses its effectiveness when prompted to offer other locations, exterior street scenes and a pulse-pounding climactic scene at a waterfall in Switzerland (don’t ask). Instead, it relies on random recurring images that, while beautiful, don’t help the action move forward. Lindsey Jones’ occasionally dynamic sound design helps, but not enough.
And if you’re hoping for a tough Sherlock to save the day, Christian Pedersen as Holmes looks like Sherlock-lite. He doesn’t dazzle us with a commanding presence, decent British accent, or even a sense of cocaine-tinged doom. It’s as if the Gopher from “The Boat of Love” became a detective genius. (Note to Ken Ludwig: Idea for a new genre?)
Mr. Ludwig is capable of creating sharp and funny comedy. After all, he wrote the often hilarious song “Lend Me a Tenor.” But Ken Ludwig’s Moriarty: The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes creates its own Sherlock-esque puzzle: The Case of the Missing Mystery and the Missing Scavenger Hunt. As that fearless yet humorous Scooby-Doo crime-solver, “Roo-ro,” wisely observed.
Ken Ludwig’s Moriarty: The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Through May 21 at Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., clevelandplayhouse.com216-241-6000.
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