'Ken Ludwig's Moriarty: A New Sherlock Holmes Adventure,' Now at the Cleveland Play House, is No Adventure at All

Tired jokes and missing mysteries

click to enlarge Christian Pedersen as Sherlock Holmes in "Ken Ludwig's Moriarty" - Photo by Roger Mastroianni.
Photo by Roger Mastroianni.
Christian Pedersen as Sherlock Holmes in "Ken Ludwig's Moriarty"
If you read the promotional material for Ken Ludwig's Moriarty: A New Sherlock Holmes Adventure, now at the Cleveland Play House, it may tickle your fancy. It promises that this light parody of Sherlock Holmes will provide "danger—and laughter!—around every corner." Sadly, it delivers little of either.

Turns out, the title itself is also misleading since the play is neither new (in terms of the humor being offered), nor is it much of an adventure. It has the comedy profile of a dated episode of "The Love Boat" combined with the riveting suspense of "Scooby-Doo." Ken Ludwig's Moriarty employs so many tired jokes and well-worn tropes, the low-energy script generates sighs rather than guffaws.

To construct this kluge, the playwright scavenged various plot points from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original works and then taped them together to create his "new" plot. In this case, a bunch of important letters go missing and Sherlock's arch-enemy Moriarty appears to be involved. Then an American actress Irene Adler (Olivia Gilliatt) shows up and turns into a super-sleuth to help Sherlock and faithful but hapless Dr. Watson (Nick Gaswirth) solve the, um, mystery.

Ludwig has taken that idea and added multiple characters, making it confusing but not in a fun way. Those folks—played by Jeffrey M. Bender and Talley Gale, with a couple added by Ms. Gilliatt—are the central gimmick in the playwright's genre of pilfered-plot-plays (he also wrote the similarly structured Ken Ludwig's Hound of the Baskervilles).

The fast-change character concept can be funny (see The 39 Steps by John Buchan), but isn't in this case. The actors' leaps from one character to another don't happen quickly or in full view, which would allow the audience to admire (and yes, chuckle) at the thespian's agility. Instead, various minor characters are trotted out at odd moments for no apparent reason.

But Ludwig is not solely to blame for a theatrical effort that feels exhausted long before it's finished. It is co-directed by Mark Brokaw and Michael Barakiva, each of whom apparently relied on the other to come up with the clever comedic ideas. To wit: when Holmes and Adler find themselves in a narrow passageway and get stuck facing each other, neither of the directors can find a way to extend that moment to make it sillier or sexier. Even the evil Moriarty (Bender) turns out to be rather dull as villainous masterminds go.

That laissez-faire direction, along with Ludwig's threadbare script, combine to produce a play that lasts only 105 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission. Why so short? Well for one thing, the actors don't have to wait for the laughter to die down.

The scenic design by Chika Shimizu starts off well, with a sumptuous library at Holmes' flat featuring towering bookshelves. But the set quickly loses its effectiveness when called upon to suggest other locales, exterior street scenes, and the climactic "pulse-pounding" scene at a waterfall in Switzerland (don't ask). Instead, it leans on random period images that, while lovely, don't help move the action forward. Lindsay Jones' occasionally dynamic sound design helps, but not enough.

And if you're hoping that a bang-on Sherlock will save the day, Christian Pedersen as Holmes comes across as Sherlock-Lite. He doesn't dazzle us with a commanding presence, or a decent British accent, or even a cocaine-tinged sense of doom. It's like Gopher from The Love Boat became a detective genius. (Note to Ken Ludwig: Idea for a new genre?)

Mr. Ludwig is capable of crafting a sharp and amusing comedy. After all, he wrote the often hilarious Lend Me a Tenor. But Ken Ludwig's Moriarty: A New Sherlock Holmes Adventure creates its own sort of Sherlock-ian conundrum: The Case of the Missing Mystery and the Vanished Guffaw. As that intrepid yet humorous crime-solver Scooby-Doo would wisely observe, "Ruh-roh."

Ken Ludwig's Moriarty: A New Sherlock Holmes Adventure
Through May 21 at the Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., clevelandplayhouse.com, 216-241-6000.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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