Sherlock Holmes is a fictional private detective dreamed up by the turn-of-the-century British doctor and writer Arthur Conan Doyle — or so history would have it. Certain scholars, collectors and fans prefer to believe that Holmes was an actual person. Holmes himself would probably agree with them — at least as he’s depicted in Michael Mitnick’s play “Mysterious Circumstances,” which is having its entertaining, sumptuously produced world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse.
Played here by the irresistible Alan Tudyk, Holmes is the character any writer would be thrilled to create: one who “comes to life” or “steps right off the page,” metaphorical behavior that soon becomes literal.
In real life, not long after he had invented Holmes, Conan Doyle began to resent the sleuth’s power over him. Conan Doyle wanted to be remembered as a historical novelist and poet, but Holmes’ popularity obliged him to keep coming up with tiresome logic puzzles. In 1893, Conan Doyle tried to kill off Holmes, sending him over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland in a fatal struggle with his arch-nemesis, Moriarty. Fans grieved. Even the Prince of Wales begged to bring the detective back to life. (Conan Doyle eventually caved.)
In “Mysterious Circumstances,” Holmes also valiantly resists dying: In one charming scene, as the resolute Conan Doyle (Austin Durant) burns manuscript pages stage left, Holmes grips his head in agony stage right, complaining to Watson (a deliciously stoogy Ramiz Monsef) that he feels as if he is being “replaced by terribly boring details of obscure British history and sentimental poetry.” He’d blame this new brain fog on “all the cocaine,” but he can’t help wondering why his detective caseload has dried up too.
The game is afoot! If anybody can solve the mystery of what has happened to Sherlock Holmes, it’s Sherlock Holmes.
This metafictional romp, staged with clockwork precision and tongue-in-cheek verve by Geffen Artistic Director Matt Shakman, is merely one layer in the brain-teasing confection that is “Mysterious Circumstances.”
The play takes its name and inspiration from a 2004 New Yorker article by David Grann, an investigation of the death of a Conan Doyle expert named Richard Lancelyn Green. It’s a paragon of New Yorker stories: a tantalizing glimpse into a strange world populated by passionate oddballs — in this case the surprisingly cutthroat culture of amateur Holmes scholarship — exactingly researched and unspooled for the reader with linguistic flair and page-turning suspense.
Green (also played by Tudyk in one of many clever double-castings) died in circumstances so murky that they would have challenged the cognitive powers of Holmes himself. Somebody might have murdered Green, but it was equally possible that he staged his own death. No clear motive emerged. The investigation did uncover, however, colorful details about Green’s obsession with Holmes and the places it led him — yet another example of this fictional character’s uncanny knack for taking over real lives.
When I first read the story, I remember thinking that only somebody very smart could find a stage or screen path through this literary hall of mirrors, with art imitating life imitating art in every direction. The script by Mitnick (“The Siegel”) is an impressive piece of craftsmanship, weaving different time periods, historical and fictional characters, and fantasy and reality into a crazy edifice that ought to collapse at once but holds for a good long time — also a testament to the direction, the dazzling design elements and the charming cast, which includes local stage stars Leo Marks, Hugo Armstrong, Helen Sadler and John Bobek, all in multiple roles. Their zeal, their diverse characterizations and their startlingly rapid costume changes prop up even the droopier, more sentimental scenes well into the second act.
Conan Doyle and Green are both depicted as lonely, for different reasons; the play suggests that they used the logical, emotionally unavailable Holmes as a shield against heartbreak. Unfortunately, onstage their thwarted human love affairs come across as so insipid and thin, at least compared to the pyrotechnics of their Holmesian adventures, that their obsessions don’t seem that tragic.
The script’s bigger problem reveals itself near the end. It’s the same problem that left the New Yorker article unsatisfying. The play attempts three or four increasingly strained and far-fetched finales before sputtering out.
The article and the play both offer the dubious argument that an unsolved mystery is the most delightful outcome of all. Maybe some people don’t demand closure from their art. (Postmodernists. Pynchon fans.) They enjoy getting all wound up and left hanging. Resolution bores them.
Those people will not feel let down at the end of “Mysterious Circumstances.” The rest of us will have to fight the temptation to put on our Inverness capes and deerstalker hats and begin investigating the case ourselves.
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through July 14
Info: (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.org
The best way to support our coverage of L.A. theater is to become a digital subscriber and to read our news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.