Playing the part of Sherlock Holmes in some form or another has become one of the contemporary world’s must-dos for actors. Similarly, the source material has seen countless versions—different genres, time periods, countries, genders. So Ken Ludwig’s idea of turning a Sherlock Holmes story into a comedy isn’t groundbreaking, which means the execution of the idea needs to be really good to stand out from the crowd of adaptations. It isn’t.
BASKERVILLE is based on one of the most famous Sherlock Holmes stories, the one where Sherlock (Ron Menzel) and Dr. Watson (Henry Clarke) travel to Dartmoor (or “The Moors”) where they try to figure out whether the legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles, a monstrous dog that haunts the moors, is true. When they arrive, one mysterious murder has already happened, and the American heir Sir Henry (Matt Zambrano) is the likely target of the next one—but why? Since this is a comedic version, if features a whole host of strange side characters played by Crystal Finn, Adam Green and Matt Zambrano. Most of the comedy comes from these minor characters, and most of that comedy is based on different bad accents and caricatures that would be at home in a 1940s musical.
It’s not so much that BASKERVILLE isn’t fun or funny—it has its moments. Those moments, however, are overshadowed by the fact that most of the comedy is not just tired, but bordering on offensive. For example, the character of the butler is apparently funny because he is disabled. And the character of Stapleton is funny because he’s an effeminate man. When it comes to comedy, being offensive is not a bad thing, but it becomes a problem when offense is made in such a tiresome way. Watching this play, one half expects a character to show up in blackface to complete the range of what was funny in 1948.
It’s sad that the script is so uninspired, as other parts of the production deserve praise. The costume (Jess Goldstein) and set (Daniel Ostling) design, for example, are much more creative and fun than any part of the script. In fact, they are responsible for most of the truly delightful moments in this production. The acting is farcical, but it couldn’t really be anything else under the circumstances, and at times, the actors manage to elevate the material into something laughter-worthy. But not even the good acting can lend this production any real substance.
If you enjoy farces in general and Ken Ludwig’s style in particular, or wish to be delighted by some innovative set and costume design, BASKERVILLE is a good choice. Otherwise, you’re better off reading the book or watching one of the thousand other adaptations.
[Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad Street] November 27-December 27, 2015; philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.