'Mysterious Circumstances': Theater Review

Mysterious Circumstances at Geffen Playhouse-Production still-H 2019
Jeff Lorch
The game is afoul

Alan Tudyk excels in the world premiere of Michael Mitnick's quirky murder mystery surrounding the death of a real-life Sherlock Holmes expert, directed by Matt Shakman.

The world’s foremost expert on Sherlock Holmes died in 2004 under circumstances seemingly lifted from Arthur Conan Doyle's own handbook. The victim, who wore only slip-on shoes, was garroted with a shoelace. His quarters locked from within. A wooden spoon and half a bottle of gin were found at the scene, even though he only drank wine. And a strange outgoing message had replaced the usual one on his answering machine. The newly deceased was Richard Lancelyn Green, who spent 20 years in search of Doyle's archive, estimated to be worth nearly $4 million and said to carry a deadly curse. The crime is tidily summed up in a 2004 New Yorker article by David Grann that has been adapted into a decidedly untidy play, world-premiering at the Geffen Playhouse and starring the mercurial Alan Tudyk.

Books in stacks are a persistent motif in scenic designer Brett J. Banakis' array of impressively expedient sets. They flank an antique chest, the show's MacGuffin, that seems to float on air as the lights come up. The phone rings and an abrupt message states, "Not available" in a terse American accent. The door is broken in to reveal a murder victim face down on a Persian rug. In an inventive and arresting piece of staging, the image hangs vertically, giving the audience a view of the scene from above.

Green (Tudyk) is a nebbishy, scholarly figure with a lifelong fixation on Holmes and his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle. It runs so deep that it takes preference over suitors who try to pick him up in a London bar. As one runs out of patience, Green assures him he can speak on subjects other than Holmes, asking, "Do you like Ferris wheels?"

Moments later, Holmes (Tudyk again), and Watson (Ramiz Monsef) struggle with memory loss, their heads filled with obscure English history and sentimental poetry. It's a condition brought on, as we soon discover, by Doyle's decision to take a seven-year hiatus from Holmes.

The American (Hugo Armstrong), is a real-life figure who works for the Pentagon and competes with Green on all things Holmes. In the play he becomes Green's Moriarty, based on Holmes' literary nemesis. During a visit to the famed Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, where Holmes was overcome by Moriarty in The Final Problem, the American threatens Green.

In another scene, Green's dentist asks him for a loan. Moments later we visit Doyle and his editor, who attempts to cajole him into reviving Holmes to meet clamorous public demand. In still another scene, Green strikes up a relationship with an American businessman. "All signs point in all directions," says a detective in the opening moments. Still, the audience holds out hope these disparate threads across time and fiction will eventually come together in a surprising and satisfying conclusion. Spoiler alert: They don't.

Doyle's daughter, Dame Jean (Helen Sadler), holds the antique chest we see in the opening moments, an archive including an autobiography, unpublished stories, letters and the like. Upon her death, she aims to bequeath it to the British Library where Green and like-minded scholars will have full access. But after her death, it is announced the collection will be auctioned off, likely landing in private hands away from public view. Green's efforts to halt the auction wind up halting him, permanently.

In real life, Green's murder remains unsolved, a vexing conclusion to any murder mystery. Playwright Michael Mitnick is wise enough not to structure the piece according to the rules of that genre, however, instead opting for a first-person account from an unreliable narrator. But Green's view of the world, skewed by his mania, makes for sloppy storytelling that includes numerous extraneous moments, such as not one but three bar scenes illustrating his antisocial tendencies.

A consummate character actor, Tudyk emerges unscathed, bringing pathos and poignancy to his depiction of Green, as well as his familiar zaniness to a caricatured Holmes, tapping into his seasoned comedic chops. With so much going on, it's easy to overlook the fact that Tudyk appears in most scenes, even simultaneously tackling Holmes and Green in the show's climactic passage.

Surrounding him is an exemplary supporting cast including Monsef, a familiar face on the Los Angeles stage from playwright Rajiv Joseph's Guards at the Taj and Archduke. His Watson is an engaged part of the team, matching Tudyk's expert comedic timing, and active beyond the usual sounding board status assigned the character.

Armstrong is expressively versatile as the goofy Sherlockian Gibner, also playing the insidious American/Moriarty, cutting a tall, intimidating figure with his bald dome and piercing gaze. Sadler switches effortlessly from fading flower Touie Conan Doyle to elderly scion Dame Jean, also assaying an eccentric Sherlockian, policeman and coroner.

"You may live for the truth," she tells Doyle. "But I live for the joy." It's a thematic statement meant to underscore Green's own dilemma. His pursuit of the archive and all things Sherlockian stands in the way of his engagement with the people and world around him. But in the end, it rings as thematic intent only, an idea that remains mostly unexplored.

Director Matt Shakman, also the Geffen's artistic director, has characterized the play as a love story between a man, an author and a fictionalized character, noting, "There's as much validity to that kind of love as there is in a love between two people." But that debatable conclusion is a creaky thematic foundation that doesn't hold up in the end.

Yet, Shakman isn't the culprit here. His work with the cast is as specific as his staging is antic, including a barrage of set changes and lighting cues by Elizabeth Harper. The play lives or dies on the performance at its center, and Shakman's work with Tudyk is unerring, keeping the proceedings above par. Mitnick, best known for Fly by Night, the 2014 musical he co-wrote with Carolyn Cantor at Playwrights Horizons, might have taken a cue from Doyle, whose stories are economically written, ending in cool rationality. While often entertaining, his new play is more often chaotic and sometimes pointless, a little too much like life and less like theater.

Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles
Cast: Hugo Armstrong, John Bobek, Austin Durant, Leo Marks, Ramiz Monsef, Helen Sadler, Alan Tudyk
Director: Matt Shakman
Playwright: Michael Mitnick
Set designer: Brett J. Banakis
Costume designer: E.B. Brooks
Lighting designer: Elizabeth Harper
Music and sound designer: Jonathan Snipes
Projection designers: Kaitlyn Pietras, Jason H. Thompson
Executive producers: Laurie and Bill Benenson, Martha Henderson, Pamela Robinson Hollander and Robert Hollander, Loretta Evertee Kaufman and Victor Kaufman, Linda Bernstein Rubin and Tony Rubin, Kimberly Steward and Josh Godfrey, Miranda and Brett Tollman