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Stage review: Few fireworks ignited in 'The Game's Afoot'

Published: Saturday, Jan. 14 2012 4:00 p.m. MST

Cameron Aaron Asay and Kylee Bird as two of the Christmas Eve party guests in Cameron Aaron Asay and Kylee Bird as two of the Christmas Eve party guests in "The Game's Afoot." (Douglas W Carter)

“The Game's Afoot,” Hale Centre Theatre, through Feb. 4, $24-$15, 801-984-9000 or www.halecentretheatre.org

WEST VALLEY CITY — Just as Robert Downey Jr. reinvigorated Sherlock Holmes for this generation — with massive explosions and whizbang-shebang cinematics — William Gillette made the mastermind sleuth a Broadway spectacle for three decades beginning in 1899.

Don’t expect the same fireworks from “The Game’s Afoot,” in its regional premiere at the Hale Centre Theatre.

Written by nationally acclaimed playwright Ken Ludwig, whose Broadway hits “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Crazy for You” are reverently regarded by avid theatergoers, the new play elicits laughs but is a leaden homage to the scene-stealing actor.

Reports indicated that the real-life Gillette, the main character in “The Game’s Afoot,” had a heroic persona when playing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective. With vibrant talent, Gillette mesmerized turn-of-the-century audiences simply by standing motionless, and even his minor vocal inflections spoke wonders.

As conceived by Ludwig, Gillette is no scene-stealer. He is merely a dinner party host with a surprise for his guests, four of his fellow actors — the invitation of an acerbic columnist. The sharpest comedy is in the cutting repartee between the New York writer and the 1936 Christmas Eve celebrants, who are the subjects of her theater columns. But the characters are not crisply written to provide memorable comedy.

Although with the direction at the Hale, it’s difficult to fully judge the merits of the play. There is not even consistency from the first act to the second. This “Game’s Afoot” begins as a genteel drawing room comedy, but the second act strives for broad slapstick humor and madcap physical commotion.

The eight actors in the Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday cast are game, but there’s little inspiration from director David Nieman, who has ample credits. He should be more able to guide the performers to mine what nuggets are in the author’s minor work.

At the introduction to “The Game’s Afoot,” there’s a brief scene from a stage production of a Holmes play with the evening’s actors performing these roles. This would allow the cast to take on flamboyant guises — they are actors playing actors who are playing actors, so to speak. But the performers’ characterizations are identical to those of their later roles.

Performing as Gillette, Mitch Hall walks the paces of the famed actor without any commanding presence, but all of the actors are at their best in the first act. Standing out is the devil-may-care demeanor of Emily Bell amid the actors playing also-seasoned actors — Justin Bruse, Kylee Bird and Cameron Aaron Asay.

It’s left to Margo Watson as a theater critic you love to hate and JaNae Gibbs Cottam as the ditzy detective to nail the laughs with their colorful characters. The sÉance scene in the darkened manse fails to fully engage, and the preposterous investigation of the evening’s murder — or is the stage manager’s earlier murder and a curtain call shooting of Gillette somehow connected? — is ineptly staged.

The look of the show is near perfection. The fanciful contraptions Gillette installed, including a couch that rises from the floor to reveal a swanky bar, impress. The evening wear glitters and each costume defines the character. Patrons are able to examine the salt-and-pepper-tweed deerstalker hat and matching frock overcoat, which Hall dons when he takes on the Holmes character, hanging at one theater entrance so the actor can make the quick costume change.

The staging of “The Game’s Afoot” was highly anticipated, but this production is a disappointment.

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