Playwright Ken Ludwig is best known for his comic farces (“Lend Me a Tenor,” “Moon Over Buffalo,” and the book for the musical “Crazy for You”) that send up show business while offering actors a chance to have a lot of fun “chewing the scenery.”
Although Ludwig’s “The Game’s Afoot: Holmes for the Holidays” is not the playwright’s best effort, Lyric Stage Company of Boston has tapped Fred Sullivan Jr. to direct its production, following his triumphant work last year with Lyric’s “The Play That Goes Wrong.” Sullivan once again delivers, so that while “The Game’s Afoot” is not a laugh riot, Sullivan brings out the best in his talented cast, encouraging them to navigate some of the script’s convoluted plot mechanics, find the fun, and share it with the audience.
Ludwig’s first act is weighed down by endless exposition, as we meet William Gillette (Kelby T. Akin), an actor who has built a successful career bringing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s inveterate detective, Sherlock Holmes, to the stage. This part is based in fact, as the Connecticut-born Gillette truly did create the visual image of Holmes (deerstalker hat, pipe, and all) and did build a castle in Lyme, Conn., complete with hidden rooms, doors, mirrors, and puzzles to entertain his guests.
As in most farces, the set functions as another character in the play, and Janie E. Howland’s detailed and realistic living room of Gillette’s castle, with the requisite doors and stairway, as well as the revolving wall with bookcase/bar, is an eye-catching treat. She also has a wonderful partner in lighting designer John Malinowski, whose effects manage to be evocative, subtle, and dramatic. The action is set on Christmas Eve, when the cast of Gillette’s latest Sherlock Holmes production, his mother, and one special guest gather to celebrate the holiday. And that’s where Ludwig leaves facts behind, replacing them with an overly complicated tale of an attempted murder, followed by a successful one, backstabbing (literally and figuratively), choking, gunshots, and the slamming of doors required in every farce.
Sullivan, however, leans into the thinly-drawn characters, and he has assembled a first-rate cast to add nuance and delightful physical comedy to keep the action moving. In the role of Gillette himself, Akin shifts easily between the pompous host, heartbroken lover, loyal son, and amateur detective with determined brio. Akin wins us over with his big, broad approach — he is after all, an actor playing an actor.
The other standout is Maureen Keiller, playing the surprise guest, Daria Chase, a glamorous theater critic whose tongue is as sharp as her pen, and who has a personal and professional history with most of the people in the party. Keiller sashays through the group, dropping compliments wrapped in barbed insults and threats, before she reveals her other talent — acting as a medium and leading a séance. When the group calls foul on her phony act, she has a meltdown and calls a cab to leave. This is another moment when Ludwig overloads his script with unnecessary murder-mystery cliches, but that’s OK because Daria ends up with a knife in her back. The death scene that follows is pure comic gold thanks to Keiller’s timing, expressions, and the longest audible exhale I’ve ever witnessed.
That scene is followed by another in which Gillette and his Dr. Watson costar Felix Geisel (Remo Airaldi) hide Daria’s body — in a closet with a door that won’t stay closed, on a stool in a hidden bar that won’t stay hidden, and on and behind a couch. Keiller certainly deserves an award for her ability to remain limp, even as she is shoved, tossed, and dragged around that set, while Akin and Airaldi’s clowning is spot on.
Airaldi is a delight as the longtime sidekick, whose resentment about playing second fiddle finally erupts, even as his relationship with his actress wife, Madge (a blithely confident Pamela Lambert), swings from sweet to sour and back again.
Peter Mill, who was such a standout in Moonbox Productions’ “Torch Song” and “The Rocky Horror Show,” is wasted in the thankless role of Inspector Goring, who mostly reacts to the histrionics of Gillette (in full Sherlock mode) and friends. Mill does look fabulous in a skirt suit and red wig, and nothing can compete with his arched-eyebrow pouts, but I found myself wishing he could let loose on these scenes.
While the script of “The Game’s Afoot” suffers from the weight of Ludwig’s overwriting (including an overabundance of quotations from Shakespeare), Sullivan and his ensemble’s efforts to focus on the physical comedy pay off in an evening that manages to be amusing.
THE GAME’S AFOOT: HOLMES FOR THE HOLIDAYS
Play by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Fred Sullivan Jr. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 130 Clarendon St., through Dec. 17. $45-$80. 617-585-5678, Lyricstage.com