The title of “Sherlock’s Last Case’’ notwithstanding, we all know by now that there will never be a last anything when it comes to Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective.
More than a century after Doyle created him, Sherlock is everywhere, his ubiquity in pop culture officially certified when Guinness World Records declared Sherlock the “most portrayed literary human character in film & TV,’’ besting that slacker Hamlet by a wide margin (though the nonhuman Dracula finished first).
So “Sherlock’s Last Case’’ is not exactly a daring programming choice by the Huntington Theatre Company. Compared to Huntington season-opener “The Niceties,’’ Eleanor Burgess’s knotty, high-voltage exploration of race and power, “Sherlock’s Last Case’’ amounts to a safe serving of theatrical comfort food.
But that dish does contain a few unexpected spices. Charles Marowitz’s mid-1980s comedy, directed by Maria Aitken at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, is laden with enough twists and expectation-confounding turnabouts to keep you engaged, delivering pleasures akin to those found in Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth’’ (1970), a play (later movie) to which “Sherlock’s Last Case’’ owes a considerable debt.
While the cast of “Sherlock’s Last Case’’ was not firing on all cylinders at Wednesday night’s performance and the production needs to be tighter and snappier, Aitken’s track record at the Huntington suggests the show’s intermittent kinks will be ironed out as its run continues. The director has reliably delivered the goods over the years in Boston with such works as “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps,’’ “Bedroom Farce,’’ “The Seagull,’’ “The Cocktail Hour,’’ “Betrayal,’’ “Private Lives,’’ and “Educating Rita.’’
When discussing a play built on a certain amount of mystery and suspense, a reviewer’s duty, obviously, is not to give away too much. So let’s just say that “Sherlock’s Last Case’’ delves into the complex psychodynamics of literature’s longest-running bromance: the partnership of Sherlock Holmes (Rufus Collins), that towering genius of deductive logic, and Doctor Watson (Mark Zeisler), his aide-de-camp and chronicler of his exploits.
Need more? OK. It’s the fall of 1897, and Holmes is lounging in a dressing gown on a divan in his fabled Baker Street flat (handsomely designed by Hugh Landwehr) while being his usual condescending self to doughty Mrs. Hudson (a spot-on Jane Ridley) and to Watson. (How would it feel to be constantly told that your insights are “elementary’’?)
Holmes receives a threatening letter from someone whose existence he was not even aware of, though the surname could not be more well-known to him: It is a man who says he is the son of the notorious Professor Moriarty, Holmes’s nemesis. The letter-writer seems to be vowing revenge for the death of Moriarty, who perished during a struggle with Holmes atop Reichenbach Falls. (Sherlock Holmes aficionados will recall that as the episode from the story “The Final Problem,’’ in which Doyle, feeling trapped by his creation, tried to kill off Holmes, only to revive him later after a public outcry.)
Soon, a mysterious young woman named Liza presents herself to Holmes, identifying herself as Moriarty’s daughter. Deftly and wittily played by Antoinette Robinson, Liza tells the detective she wishes to “make an end of this hideous enmity’’ and offers to lead Holmes to her menacing brother. Appealing to the detective’s vanity, she says that a face-to-face encounter will give the detective a chance to reason with her hot-headed sibling and give him “an opportunity to mend his ways.’’
What then ensues is a cat-and-mouse game. To say any more would be to run afoul of the no-spoilers pledge.
In that scene and others, Collins does a solid job capturing Holmes’s imperious egotism, though the extra ingredient of Sherlock’s icy charisma doesn’t quite come through in the actor’s performance. Zeisler’s portrayal of Watson, while certainly capable, also needs to be turned up a few degrees to be truly compelling (and was marred Wednesday by a few flawed line deliveries). There would seem to be more laughs to be mined from Inspector Lestrade, the stereotypically bluff and bumbling British police officer, than actor Malcolm Ingram is currently extracting. The same is true of the production as a whole.
SHERLOCK’S LAST CASE
Play by Charles Marowitz. Directed by Maria Aitken. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Huntington Avenue Theatre, Boston, through Oct. 28. Tickets from $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org