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Theater reviews: The Game's Afoot, or Holmes for the Holidays, more 

CPCC Theatre's latest keeps you laughing and guessing

Even if you aren't familiar with Ken Ludwig's most successful scripts — Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo and Crazy for You — the full title of his more recent frolic, The Game's Afoot, or Holmes for the Holidays tells you what to expect and what the playwright's strategy will be. After conquering stage, screen and TV, Sherlock gets a shot at Christmas in a comedy now running at CPCC. You can also readily deduce that Ludwig aims to keep you laughing and guessing.

Admirers of Ludwig's hits will also anticipate that Sherlock's sleuthing will be smothered in a showbiz ambiance and garnished with backstage lore. What's startling here is that, instead of his usual mash-up of showbiz stereotypes and history, Ludwig builds his comedy mystery around an actual theater legend, actor/playwright William Gillette. In many ways, most notably the deerstalker cap and the "Elementary" catchphrase, Gillette invented Holmes for the American theater, and it was his own adaptation of half a dozen Arthur Conan Doyle yarns that he performed onstage more than 1,300 times over a span of 30 years.

From the beginning, Ludwig messes with us. We seem to be watching the climax of a classic Sherlock manhunt, but we're actually watching the end of a Gillette performance — and the violent crime occurs while he and the cast are taking their bows. So, we adjourn to Gillette Castle on the Connecticut River, where William indulges his impulse to sleuth in real life, inviting all the suspects to a Christmas soiree.

We quickly learn the actor has grown fabulously wealthy, giving free rein to his eccentricity. Weapons and gadgets line the walls of his posh parlor: rifles, pistols, axes, a garrote, an intercom and even a taping system run by remote control. Sprung by a false sconce, one of the walls actually revolves!

Pretty nifty for Christmas 1936, when the real Gillette would have been past his 83rd birthday, and rather quixotic for CPCC Theatre to install at panoramic Pease Auditorium. Perhaps, with the aid of unseen ninjas, scenic designer James Duke gets the revolve to work every time, but we must thank the tuxedos, wigs and evening dresses from costume designer Emily McCurdy for helping us to overlook the lack of patrician polish in the decor.

The most outrageous of those wigs are worn by Eleanor Wixson as William's loopy mom, Martha (on loan from Arsenic and Old Lace), and Christine Noah as William's flighty ex-paramour, Aggie. Not so long ago, Aggie married a millionaire who died in a freakish skiing accident. Dressed in deep crimson, not widow's black, the ingenue actress arrives at the Gillette mansion in the company of Simon Bright, who turns out not to be Aggie's escort but — suspiciously soon — her new husband. Also on the guest list are acting couple Felix and Madge Geisel, played by Scott Reynolds and Shawnna Pledger, William's longtime friends and castmates.

Into this cozy coterie, William tosses a wildcard, nasty theater critic Daria Chase, a vicious gossip columnist to boot. The would-be Sherlock has a trick or two up his sleeve, and Daria fits into his scheme in multiple ways. One of her nuggets of gossip may be the key to solving the theater shooting and the subsequent murder of a stagehand. Or, since she professes to be a medium, she may be able to summon the soul of the victim at a seance.

Tasked with William's egotistical flamboyance and Daria's preternatural cattiness, Tony Wright and Lainie Mabbitt have drawn the plumiest roles at Pease, and their performances typify the merits and shortcomings of both the script and the CP production. An adept Shakespearean actor, Wright is exactly what Ludwig requires from his over-the-top protagonist, particularly when he declaims the Bard's pentameters. But the device is way overdone, to the point of conspicuously displacing wit and humor.

On the other hand, Daria brings a welcome profusion of physical comedy to the table — a jumpy and shaky table — and both sides of that revolving wall. Director Tom Hollis, along with Duke and sound designer Jeff Murdock, help to make Daria's seance a lethal delight. But moments of uncertainty punctuate Mabbitt's work, as if she often had to be reassured during rehearsals that, yes, she should go that far with the critic's flakiness. Mabbitt may also be afflicted with critical intelligence when she gets to Daria's last paroxysms in Act 2. Ludwig ignores another STOP sign there.

Nathan Scott seems far more ill-at-ease as Simon in his CP debut, and he's probably too soft-spoken for those seated at the rear of the house, but everyone else in the cast appears blithely convinced that they're working with wondrous material. Wixson has us turned around as often as her son, wielding teacups and daggers in Mother Gillette's dotage, and Noah keeps us confused with Aggie's gushy capriciousness. Would the Geisels plot to kill off their old friend? Reynolds and Pledger exude a Nick-and-Nora elegance that says it's impossible, even when they're quarreling.

As a storm rages outside, the lights fail and the phone goes on the blink, you might get a fatalistic hint of Ten Little Indians in the air. Sure enough, Amy Laughter bustles onto the scene as Inspector Goring to investigate the fresh murder on the premises. She is exactly what Miss Marple would be if Agatha Christie had allowed her to come out of the closet. A sweet touch.

Citizens of the Universe engaged in some hamming and sleuthing of their own last week with A Disturbance in Whitechapel, a comedic desecration of the Jack the Ripper murders by NoDa guerilla-at-large James Cartee. Featuring a timorous Victorian civic booster and a stodgy police commissioner, the bumbling Whitechapel investigation dragged us across several NoDa landmarks, including the Smelly Cat, Growlers and the intersection of North Davidson and 36th. Beggars and butchered harlots dotted our paths.

There was plenty of improv all evening long as actors interacted with audience, guiding us along our twisty path. Because of the Halloween cloudburst last Friday, the final scene couldn't be staged out behind The Rat's Nest. So I think the fiend was unmasked indoors at JackBeagle's. What I know for sure is that the culprit was decided at UpStage, where the action began. Little did we know, as we ate our pre-show dinners, that five prime suspects in the cast were playing poker right before our eyes to determine who the killer would be. Yep, there were five different endings to this mystery.

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