Sunday, April 27, 2014

Tightly wound characters in a tightly wound comedy-mystery plot cap IRT's 42nd season

"The Game's Afoot" is a surefooted blend of murder-mystery and farce, and its production to conclude Indiana Repertory Theatre's 42nd season enjoys the same boisterous groundedness as Ken Ludwig's script.

The vanity of actors being almost as notorious as that of people who write about their art,  I shall tread carefully here in reviewing Saturday's second performance. This is a play about players and their world. Even at leisure, they are chock-full of what they do for a living. But they are not free of grubby motives that have nothing to do with art. That's Ludwig's playground here.

Under Peter Amster's direction, there's an elaborate display of conviction in each character. The cast is serious about their shenanigans: When they lie and deceive and display their vanity, they do it with the gusto of both inhabiting the characters and being familiar with life in the theater.

Ludwig zeroes in on the eminence of William Gillette, who gained fame and fortune in the first part of the 20th century putting Sherlock Holmes onstage and outfitting him in iconic ways that you won't find in the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle, as dramaturg Richard J Roberts' excellent program notes tell us.  From the actuality of Gillette's eminence and his well-appointed rural castle, the playwright has drawn heady inspiration and let his imagination run wild on a Connecticut Christmas Eve of 1936.

Daria Chase (Jennifer Johansen) reproves the wisecracking Simon Bright (Jurgen Hooper) at the seance.
Sure to elicit admiring gasps every time, Russell Metheny's design of the castle's great room has a majesty and imposing warmth reflecting Gillette's lofty opinion of himself and the kind of lifestyle he is certain he deserves. Matthew Brumlow, an actor who projects a wily daftness that is positively Monty-Pythonesque, filled the role with focused self-regard and a gift for appearing to emerge on the top side of any tangle.

Gillette's party for his cast at the home he shares with his mother, Martha Gillette, is thrown together as he recuperates from a gunshot wound suffered at a curtain call in New York. He has an investigation of his own in mind, something worthy of his conviction that he is fully equal in persistence and deductive powers to the sleuth he plays onstage. Mother tends to get in the way of her son's designs, yet her maternal squabbling and social bluntness turn out to be more than just a nuisance to William.

Priscilla Lindsay brings multiple skills to the role of Martha Gillette.
Max Beerbohm once identified three ways to rave about an actress: for her technique, for her conception of the part she plays, and for her personality. By this illustrious standard, let me register a threefold rave for Priscilla Lindsay as Martha. Her technical command gives us the flighty qualities of William's mother while hinting that she may have more depth to her; many women with an appetite for gossip get more out of it than simple satisfaction of their curiosity. So it is with Martha. Lindsay returns to the IRT stage as someone dependably at home in any role, because her ideas about it are clear. That's Rave No. 2. Finally, people just like to see her onstage, and not only because they got used to her over the course of 60 IRT productions. She invests her personality in what she plays.

Stalwart members of Gillette's company round out the cast, except for the caustic columnist/critic Daria Chase (Jennifer Johansen) and the savvy police inspector Goring (Carmen Roman). Few actors now active in Indianapolis could command the stage — in character alive or dead — as well as Johansen does here. Entering in the second act, the inspector has theatrical fantasies of her own to balance against Gillette's detective role-playing. Aside from an odd accent that seemed more old England than New England, Carmen Roman delightfully conveyed Goring's eccentricity, intelligence and doggedness.

The inspector role needs to be in good hands, because despite the play's sturdy structure, it lacks a flow in the second act. Ludwig has to bring the comic complications to full boil (like where and how to hide the body) while sorting out his characters' mixed motives and resolving the mystery. He does it deftly, but not without bumps along the way.

Geisel and Gilette try out their Irish joke on Inspector Goring.
The physical comedy is rich: There's the staged hysteria of Madge Geisel (Constance Macy) during a seance conducted by the imperious Chase, for one. And when Rob Johansen as her husband, Felix Geisel, tries to indicate by gesture to his old friend Gillette that the body is still on the couch a few feet from where the inspector is interrogating them, she asks if he has a twitch. After blurting "no," he decides he does indeed have a twitch, and proceeds to drop it into his already high-strung behavior. He's just been through some desperate wrestling with the mortally wounded Chase —  the production's summit of physical comedy. The Johansens are the Lunt and Fontanne of whole-body acting hereabouts, so that scene was bound to be a winner.

That leaves Jurgen Hooper and Hillary Clemens as the company's perky young couple, seemingly both ingenuous and lucky  — always a suspect combination.  Not much can be said about their portrayals of Simon Bright and Aggie Wheeler without rude revelations, but they do everything possible to stroke the audience's credulity till it purrs.

Murder-mysteries depend upon that kind of seduction to have their full effect, but rarely do they fold into the mixture such brazen, full-spectrum hilarity as Ludwig and this IRT production do in "The Game's Afoot."

[Photos by Zach Rosing]