WEST VALLEY CITY — The lead character in “The Game's Afoot,” a comedy-thriller-mystery getting its regional premiere at Hale Centre Theatre, was a real-life “combination Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford,” says playwright Ken Ludwig.
Although the play is fictional, William Gillette was a turn-of-the-century actor best known for playing Sherlock Holmes.
“Gillette was the great heartthrob on both sides of the Atlantic,” the Tony-nominated Ludwig said. “He was very popular; people just loved him.”
Gillette wrote the first play based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sleuth and performed the role onstage for decades, becoming widely famous — and one of the richest actors of his generation. He built a 24-room, faux medieval fortress on the Connecticut River and installed a variety of gadgets and trickeries that included mazes, hidden rooms and secret passageways.
It was on a visit to Gillette’s home, now a tourist attraction known as Gillette Castle, that Ludwig was inspired to write “The Game's Afoot,” which has only been produced once previously.
“I got to thinking, wouldn’t it be interesting to write a play with the notion that he brings a cast of one of his plays to his castle, which he often did, and during a fun weekend there was a murder,” he says. “And Gillette sort of becomes Sherlock Holmes to solve the murder.”
The setup for “The Game's Afoot” has been called pure Agatha Christie played as farce, with a touch of “All About Eve.” The cast of Gillette’s current production of “Sherlock Holmes” is gathered at the manor for a holiday party and clever repartee when the murder is committed.
The title is taken from "Before the game is afoot, thou still let'st slip," a line in Shakespeare’s "King Henry IV Part I," meaning a process is in active existence.
It’s a feather in the Hale’s cap to be given the opportunity to stage such a new work from an internationally renowned playwright. Or, as the Hale website trumpets, "fresh from his page to our stage." And local audiences will have the opportunity to see “The Game's Afoot” before its Broadway run, which Ludwig anticipates.
Ludwig has had 12 shows on Broadway and in London’s West End, starring such pros as Carol Burnett, Alec Baldwin and Frank Langella. He earned Tony nominations for “Lend Me a Tenor” and the Tony-winning “Crazy for You,” which also received London’s Olivier Award as Best Musical. The Hale has staged two previous regional premieres of Ludwig’s plays, “The Three Musketeers” and “Treasure Island,” but it's a major coup to produce a play's second staging.
“Over the years, the Hale has done a number of my works. And we’ve emailed back and forth and become friendly,” he says. Sally Dietlein, the Hale's co-founder and producer, "asked me, and on a whim — because I’m very fond of the theater and it has done my work a lot and has been very loyal — so I thought, Why not?”
The Hale received an early version of the “Game's Afoot” script with Ludwig’s handwritten notes and revisions on many pages. The play was finalized before its November premiere at the Cleveland Play House, where it received a “riotously good reaction,” Ludwig says. “The theater, which is the oldest continuously running theater in America, had the highest single-ticket sales in its history.”
Cleveland Fine Arts Examiner called “The Game's Afoot” a “wonderful holiday treat,” with the reviewer writing, “You’ll find yourself swept along for a wild and funny ride.” Broadwayworld.com wrote, “There's suspense within the laughter and even when you think you've figured out who the bad guy is, you start to question yourself when the plot takes an unexpected twist” under the headline "Murderously funny.”
David Nieman, director of the Hale production, was intrigued because “The Game's Afoot” is a new work by a leading playwright.
“Ken Ludwig is a big-name guy, and it’s a privilege to do such a new work,” Nieman says. “When he started writing, he thought it was a murder-mystery-comedy, but it’s really a comedy-murder-mystery. We have a cast of excellent actors with a lot of improv experience. It will be a very entertaining show.”
If you go:
What: “The Game's Afoot”
Where: Hale Centre Theatre
When: Dec. 31-Feb. 4
How much: $44 for New Year’s Eve premiere; $24-$15