We can deduce what city we're in, and we haven't even seen a skyline. It's elementary, Watson. The fog.
"The Mask of Moriarty," Hugh Leonard's Sherlock Holmes spoof, at the Old Globe Theatre, starts with a thick blanket of fog on Waterloo Bridge in London. But unlike the fog in a straight-up detective story, this one demands comment, and a couple of characters are overcome by hacking coughs in the play's opening moments.
Leonard, better known for more serious Irish family dramas like "Da" and "A Life," has gone seriously goofy this time out. His Mel Brooks-ian tribute to Conan Doyle's famous sleuth is executed brilliantly by the always entertaining Paxton Whitehead as Holmes and also by the direction of Nicholas Martin, who creates an uninhibited comedy-free zone for the eccentricities of his actors. Still, "Moriarty" in the end adds up to only a well-produced, extended skit, albeit one sprinkled liberally with funny moments.
Whitehead makes an elegant Sherlock, alternately sharp and obtuse. "Where others merely see, I observe," he intones thickly, and when he looks out a window he doesn't see two strangers approaching but "a young American lady and her half brother." Holmes operated in a simpler era, when it was possible to decode cultural clues without error because culture was cut-and-dried. Leonard plays merrily on this theme--garlic on Watson's breath, for instance, indicates the influence of a woman of foreign descent. Holmes is the complacent master of the British sleuthing universe; his complacency gets celebrated and mocked here. For instance, the supposedly great detective is completely oblivious to the presence of his arch enemy Professor Moriarty when he enters a room from a hidden doorway. Whitehead makes this idiot-savant dichotomy plausible. Few actors can simultaneously embody competence and confusion as well as he can; even the bass tones in his voice are as fatuous as they are dignified and unassailable.
If Whitehead is perfect for the part, the play is not necessarily perfect for him. Though it can be charming, "The Mask of Moriarty" doesn't grow in suspense, never picks up steam; nor do the jokes get loonier, with the exception of a late-breaking visual gag concerning Watson's wardrobe. Though Leonard throws into the mix everything from gnarled mop-headed hunchbacks, to Hitler's secret parentage, to the identity of Jack the Ripper, he doesn't accelerate the stakes to keep us moving forward.
However, Leonard does change locales enough to keep set designer James Joy pretty busy. Waterloo Bridge, Holmes' study with his books, Oriental rugs and stained glass, a dungeony castle basement and an opium den are all impressively put together.
The mystery begins on the Waterloo Bridge with the murder of a servant girl (Amy Chaffee). Nearby is a looming police constable named Herbert Travesty (the excellent Julian Gamble), one of those unimaginative and inevitable representatives of the law who can be counted on to arrest the wrong man. He arrests Bunny St. John Manders (Jon Patrick Walker), a shallow young gentlemen, to the protests of Bunny's newly found American half-sister. She is Gwen Mellors, played delightfully by Susan Knight, who keeps you guessing as to whether Gwen's flirtatious manner is mischievous or evil.
Soon Bunny and Gwen are in Holmes' study asking for help, and interrupting an amusing discussion about Watson's marital discord. Watson is played by a bulging-eyed Tom Lacy, an excellent foil to Whitehead's trim Holmes, whose eyes close up like a turtle's when he's thinking. Holmes says he will find the killer, though the search gets tangled up with two other important cases--a mission to find the "The McGuffin Device," which could significantly affect the world's power structure, and the continuing search for Professor Moriarty, a task made more difficult by a "Face/Off"-like twist.
As full as this might sound, it suggests Leonard never really found one plot line with which to ensnare us. Still, the acting and the dialogue may be reward enough. Who can resist Constable Travesty when he utters a sentence like, "We in the Yard keep up with our mythical ornithology." There's no place like England, when it's being mocked.
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* "The Mask of Moriarty," Old Globe Theatre, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, San Diego, Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 25. $22-$39. (619) 239-2255. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Julian Gamble: Herbert Travesty, Landlord
Susan Knight: Gwen Mellors
Amy Chaffee: Alice Binns, Methylated Mary
Jon Patrick Walker: Bunny St. John Manders
Paxton Whitehead: Sherlock Holmes
Tom Lacy: John H. Watson
David Pittu: Inspector Lestrade
Amelia White (after Oct. 14, Katherine McGrath): An August Personage
Jack Leonard: Professor Moriarty
John Seidman: Lord Melmoth
Paul Fitzgerald: Herring
Henny Russell: Lily
Aaron Krohn: Mr. O'Shaughnessy, a sailor
David Mann, Peter Smith: Sailors
An Old Globe Theatre production. By Hugh Leonard. Directed by Nicholas Martin. Sets James Joy. Costumes Michael Krass. Lights Jeff Davis. Sound Jeff Ladman. Stage manager Lurie Horns Pfeffer.