Updated: Feb 15, 2020
It's not elementary, but there's no mystery why 'The Game's Afoot' works
Ken Ludwig’s 2012 comedy, which weds the Sherlock Holmes genre with the world of theater, is coming to Stages Theatre in Fullerton.
By Joel Beers
A brief survey of a decent number of plays written over the past 100 years will find no shortage of whodunit murder mysteries, plays about actors doing plays, holiday plays, and plays featuring Sherlock Holmes. But it’d be hard to find one that incorporates all those motifs, unless it’s Ken Ludwig’s 2012 comedy “The Game’s Afoot,” which opens at Stages Theatre Jan. 10.
William Gillette (based on the actual impresario whose biggest claim to fame was adapting, directing and starring in a massively popular Sherlock Holmes play that ran for more than 30 years, and contributed greatly to the character’s trademark look in films and magazines) is recuperating from an injury sustained during a performance two weeks earlier.
It’s Christmas Eve, 1936, and he has invited the cast, along with a wickedly acerbic theater critic, to celebrate the holiday at his elaborate Connecticut castle – or so they think. But a murder resets everything; everyone is a suspect, and Gillette draws on his stage experience of playing a brilliant detective in hopes of unmasking the perpetrator – to unintended and hilarious results.
Filled with verbal gags, some physical slapstick, a bit of farce, overly dramatic characters who are as caustically witty as they are high-strung, and a mystery that invites the audience to unravel the clues right along with Gillette, there’s a lot going in the play – but not so much that audience members can’t get their bearings, says director Jason Sutton.
“Yes, there are a lot of elements, but everything is woven so intricately into the story that as long as we tell that story, and hit those motifs, I think we do his vision justice,” says Sutton, who has directed twice previously at the Fullerton storefront venue.
One thing that helps Sutton, cast and crew tell that story, he says, is that unlike two of the plays that the prolific and commercially successful Ludwig is best known for, “Lend Me A Tenor,” and “Moon Over Buffalo” (both of which Stages has produced in the past, to enthusiastic and packed houses), this one isn’t a pedal-to-the-metal farce with tons of slamming doors, mistaken identities and actors running on-and-off the stage.
“This one isn’t a full-force farce that slaps you in the face,” Sutton says. “It’s not lights up, chaos and craziness for two hours, and lights down, like a lot of farces are.” Using one of the most popular of modern farces as an example, Sutton says, “there really aren’t any moments in a show like ‘Noises Off,’ when you can stop and take a breath. But this one has those quieter moments where we move into the murder mystery part of the show, and it has some tense moments.”
In fact, while Sutton’s goal is to mount a show that elicits laughter and entertains, he would “love it if people get startled in the show, because there are some startling moments.”
That balance of comedy and tension is one of the challenging aspects of this show, Sutton says which is saying a lot because there is an inherent challenge in mounting any type of comedy. The old adage that “dying is easy, comedy is hard,” isn’t an old adage for nothing.
“When you’re doing a drama, you have to know where to put people and the pictures to make, and understanding the nuances of the moment, and the relationships between characters, and all that, and it’s the same with comedy,” Sutton says. “Except you also can’t let the (energy lag) or lose the audience, so there’s a lot more to it.”
The structure of Ludwig’s play, which allows the audience the occasional moment to collect itself amid all the sight and verbal gags and focus on the murder-mystery, is one way the audience stays engaged. So is the whodunit aspect, as audience members can try to connect the dots as clues are presented.
But there’s another built-in-feature to the play that Patti Cumby, the show’s producer, believes also keeps the audience invested – the same reason so many playwrights over the years have written plays about plays or the people who perform and stage them.
“I think a lot of non-theater people have these ideas about what theater people are really like, and I think many really enjoy feeling like they’re getting a peek backstage to see how actors really are, as unrealistic as it may be at times,” she says. “Maybe it’s a feeling like they’re in on the joke.”
Sutton agrees that there is a voyeuristic quality to seeing actors, even ones portrayed on stage, removed from the polished artifice of a production and thrust into a so-called real world that is far more chaotic.
But did Ludwig have to use actors as characters in “The Game’s Afoot”?
“Well, [the play] is embedded in the theater in that [the characters] live and work in it, but if you changed the characters and divorced it from the theater aspect, there are enough false leads and left turns to” make the whodunit work, he says. “But I don’t know if it would be as much fun though. Some of them are so flamboyant and exciting to watch. That’s one of the things I love about the show. From an acting standpoint, there isn’t one character who isn’t fun.”
Joel Beers is a freelance journalist and journalism instructor at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He has also written and adapted 10 full-length plays produced in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
“The Game's Afoot”
Stages Theatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton
Jan. 10-Feb. 9. Fri.& Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
(714) 525-4484, www.stagesoc.org