Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
The lights come up on the unmistakable digs of Sherlock Holmes’ London flat.
A shabby chair, a horsehair chaise, a table with a carafe of claret and a game board set for a deadly game of chess set the scene for a deerstalking good show. Holmes (of course). Dr. John H. Watson, Inspector Lestrade and the voice of the great detective’s long-suffering landlady, Mrs. Hudson (Paulina Johnson), are all here, with much of the action taking place at 221b Baker Street.
Sherlock Holmes — Knight’s Gambit, written and directed by Middletown playwright Paul Falzone, is enjoying its world premiere right here at Endicott’s Cider Mill Playhouse, and, next month, will be produced at the Oldcastle Theatre in Bennington, Vt. Mill subscribers will remember Falzone from his acting turns in Trying, The Last Romance and Laughter on the 23rd Floor. He also has directed several plays, but Knight’s Gambit has given him the opportunity to direct his own work, and it does not disappoint. It is clear he had some fun with this, and the audience does, too.
The rapid-fire action and snappy, intelligent script is entertaining and is less like catnip for Holmes lovers than candy in a Baker Street confectioner’s window. Sweet, and gone too soon! From beginning to end, you’ll want to listen for direct or not-so-direct allusions to people and events from Arthur Conan Doyle’s four Holmes novels and 56 short stories.
Someone (Professor Moriarty) has posed a puzzle, which, of course, Holmes can’t resist trying to solve. It soon becomes far more dangerous than his arch-enemy’s first “move” might suggest. There’s more than a “game” afoot. It could be the assassination of the King of England himself, and Holmes has to figure out when and by whom the murder will take place.
Dennis Fox is a fine Holmes who reminded me in many ways of Hugh Laurie. His delivery of the sort of lines we expect and hope to hear from the famous fictional detective is fresh and believable, without camp, except when warranted. And there are a lot of scenes that call for camp (when “dead” bodies are dragged out of the apartment, when the presumed-dead reappear and when Lestrade imbibes too enthusiastically).
Joe Andrews’ Watson is likeable and funny and, thankfully not bumbling, in keeping with contemporary portrayals of the many actors who have abandoned the hapless stereotype created by Nigel Bruce in the old Basil Rathbone movies. Charles Berman (Lestrade) is a mainstay in many local theater productions, and in Knight’s Gambit, he is a natural as the policeman in a love/hate relationship with Holmes’ detecting. His portrayal is larger than life, which, in an intimate venue such as the Cider Mill, can be a little too large.
Lestrade is presented as a Cockney, and, although that is not how I have ever pictured him, the characterization is believable. In this interpretation it is easier to see him as only a third as smart as the great detective. Note: All the actors’ accents are credible if not occasionally overdone or slipping to places where the characters may not have meant them to go.
Minor characters are well played, too. I enjoyed the performance of Gabe Templin as the imposter Michael Innes, whose failure to pick up on errors purposely made by Holmes in their brief conversation, tips off Holmes to his villainy. Ben G. Palmeti takes a character turn as Moriarty’s French henchman, Jules LeComte, who may find himself outwitted after all. Palmeti’s portrayal is a wonderfully funny homage to Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau and was one of my favorites, but John Dopplar got the most laughs as the mumbling phony constable in an Amish beard.
As is the case in first runs of plays, there are a few textual snags to work out. The actors frequently look out a window to the alley below and narrate what they see. In one such instance, the audience misinterpreted the telling of a policeman’s murder as being that of Lestrade himself. When the chief inspector reappeared, it became clear in the ensuing dialogue that we were not supposed to have thought him dead and therefore not be surprised at his “resurrection.”
In the same scene, Holmes launches into one of several speeches that make it hard to tell if the play is less of a comedy than a drama. The subjects of his soliloquies are a little too passionately articulated to allow the audience to shift gears and make the transition back to the business at hand: outwitting the next strategic move of Moriarty, who never, of course, appears. (However, no one could disagree with the ideas that are often movingly articulated in Holmes’ sermons: senseless violence, war, corruption, drug abuse and personal ethics.)
I admit to being lost a couple times as the story progressed, but all is revealed by the end, which is what a good mystery is supposed to do.
I recommend Knight’s Gambit to Holmes lovers who are not sticklers for the era and to anyone who likes a good British story. The original Holmes stories were set in the Victorian era, but setting this shortly after the turn of the last century in the Edwardian, pre-WWI era, allowed for phones and motorized cabs (not couriers and Hansom cabs) and for plenty of historical trivia about the politics and royal families of the period. Oh, and if any theatre-goer is at the Cider Mill’s table 42, they should not mind having a pistol pointed directly at them and fired (with a blank, of course). I jumped about a foot! A riveting good play!
IF YOU GO: Sherlock Holmes — Knight’s Gambit continues at 8:15 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 7:30 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 13 at the Cider Mill Playhouse, 2 S. Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. Tickets at $28 to $32 are available from noon to 5:30 p.m. weekdays at the box office and on performance days from noon until show time. Call 748-7363 or visit www.cidermillplayhouse.org. For Cider Mill photos, please visit http://gallery.cidermillplayhouse.com/main.php?g2_itemId=51955.